Greening Schoolyards Colorado

As a precursor to the Children and Nature Network – Inside Out 2023 Conference in Colorado, Fay and Daniel boarded a bus to check out some schools that had been transformed under the Greening schoolyards program across Denver. Fresh from their time at the International Play Conference in Glasgow (and visits to some wonderful play spaces around the city) they were excited to see how the movement had been impacting children in this part of the world. 

At the first school on the tour, they saw community gardens (a part of the Denver Urban Garden Project) , green lawns, outdoor classroom spaces and an open environment that meant the site is open to the public outside of school hours. It was a beautiful space but missing an essential element. The children weren’t allowed to use most of the spaces. The disconnect between space and educator understanding looks to be quite large. ‘Build it and they will come’ was a little lost. But it was a start. Prior to the transformation the school yard was just concrete and pea gravel (much like many schoolyards across the USA. Not a tree or blade of grass in site. So compared to its beginning, this space must be a welcoming oasis to the students and staff. 

At the second school there was a natural space that has been left wild, a huge lawn area and a large community garden. However the largest component of the space was an asphalt playground with some play equipment. There was no evidence of children’s play in the wild space. There didn’t seem to be much of an understanding of the concept of loose parts either, and none were available. The focus of the play affordances in these spaces was ‘speed’ related activities and places for ball games. Whilst we know these have a place in children’s play there was no emphasis on nature connection or opportunities for risky or imaginative play even though the space was available (Once they had realised that children had been jumping from boulder to boulder in the natural space, they moved the boulders further apart!). Again this was once just an asphalt space so a welcome change with green spaces, trees and some through over play affordances, but physical change without pedagogical change leaves a gap between the environment and its use.

The overwhelming feeling was that there was little to no consultation with the students and the teachers with the biggest voice in decision making being the grounds staff. 

Our last school however turned the whole tour on its head.

This greening school yard project ticked all the boxes for a community involved, nature connected, play space. The team (which included the like of Adam Bienenstock from Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, Thorne Nature Experience and Lafayette Open Spaces) and they spent a year working with the local community who were cut off from safe access to their school and downtown community. Another year of design and getting multiple organisations and stakeholders involved and then a year of construction. The outcome was a path that spans from downtown Lafayette past the Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School and a mile into the community. A path that allowed safe travel for students and their families to access their school and important services. In the middle a two acre piece of fenced off land was transformed into a nature play space and community gathering. And if that wasn’t enough, lobbying the city to add 5 new safe road crossings to ensure the community most in need could access the path and garden. The school students use it during school hours and the community the rest. An amazing example of serving a need and providing safe, nature connection to a community at risk.

So a mixed bag on this tour. It really showed us how lucky we are in Australia, that even at its lowest our schools provide green outdoor spaces for our children to play in and explore. These schools are doing what they can to improve the outdoor space for their students. As the change to curriculum occurs to incorporate more connection to nature and outdoor classrooms I can only imagine the impact these spaces will have on learning and school health. It highlighted for us the importance of the work that we do here at Educated by Nature through our consultation work, supporting educators and administrators to see the importance behind adjustment to pedagogy beyond enhancement of spaces.