These kids revamped their schoolyard. It could be a model to make cities healthier
Late morning on a sunny weekday near the end of the school year, a group of kids shot baskets into a shiny orange hoop in the schoolyard at the Add B. Anderson School in West Philadelphia. A year ago, all these kids had to shoot into was a trash can they would drag outside, one teacher tells me.
"That yard was literally just concrete," says Laurena Zeller, the principal at Anderson. "Broken concrete with a little weeds in between."
Now, the space has been transformed. There's a running track, a basketball court, picnic tables and lots of cheerful blue, new play equipment. Newly planted trees provide dappled shade. There are also two new rain gardens with colorful flowering plants. They're not just for looks – the gardens also keep storm water from polluting nearby Cobbs Creek and the Schuylkill River.
One second grader says her favorite part is doing cartwheels in the new swath of green turf. Before, she says, she would've cut her hands on the concrete.
The revamped schoolyard is part of a nationwide initiative to create more access to green spaces in low-income communities and those of color. The program is run by the Trust for the Public Land, a national nonprofit that aims to make parks and outdoor spaces accessible to everyone.
One of the coolest things about the schoolyard transformation projects is that the renovation process is led by students (with adult supervision, of course). At the Anderson School, which has a majority Black student body, that meant third graders took charge.
"Having 8- and 9-year-olds kind of navigate that process and have autonomy and voice, and then design it and then get feedback and then present the final project – it's beautiful," says Anderson principal Zeller. "I think it's life changing. I just can't even not get emotional when I think about the impact of that."
Lots of research has found that access to parks is unequal in America, and disparities fall along racial and economic lines, says Chris Lim, a public health researcher at the University of Arizona who studies the intersection of health, climate and the environment.
In America's biggest cities, neighborhoods of color have an average of 44% less park space than white communities, and similar disparities exist in low-income communities, according to the Trust for Public Land.
That's striking when you consider that living near parks and other outdoor green spaces has a host of physical and mental health benefits, including lower levels of stress and depression, a greater sense of community, improvements in physical activity, a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity and decreased risk of dying prematurely from any cause.
"The range of benefits are very broad, and also well-documented," says Lim.
Green spaces can also help with things like cooling the surrounding environment – which become more important with climate change – and helping to tamp down noise pollution, both of which also affect health, he notes. Lim says the unequal access to parks just adds to the health disparities experienced by low-income communities of color.
But in cities such as Philadelphia or New York, which are already built up, there's not a lot of excess space where you can just plop a new park to help close the access gap, says Danielle Denk, who leads the community school yards initiative for the Trust for Public Land.
That's where schoolyards like the one at the Anderson School come in.
"Parents are already bringing their kids to school," says Denk. "So if we can turn that schoolyard into a park, you're starting to introduce nature into the daily routine."
Green spaces have measurable benefits for kids too, Lim says. Studies using activity trackers show that in green space, "kids will partake in more intense physical activity. They will run around more or play around more." And that can lead to improved academic performance, too.
A child-designed community park
At Anderson, kids lead the redesign of the school grounds.
The kids picked the playground equipment. They also surveyed their teachers, families and neighbors about what they wanted out of a new outdoor space. They even became little observational scientists, studying how the old schoolyard was being used.
"Like, where did the students do the Tik Tok dances? Where were they playing dodgeball? Where were they just hanging out and reading books?" Zeller says.
The Trust for Public Land partnered with the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Water Department, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia 76ers and others to help fund the renovations. The project took five years to complete, slowed down by the pandemic. But students involved agree that it's had a big impact on their lives.
"I felt like I was an adult [in] third grade. I felt like I was really in charge, and I was happy building and designing it," says Tamir Parks, who just graduated from eighth grade at the Anderson School this week.
But the revamped schoolyard isn't just a better place to play and burn off energy. Denk says the Trust for Public Land has also documented benefits to student learning from such renovations.
"We're seeing trends in academic performance improvements [and] attendance rates," Denk says. "We've seen schools have suspensions drop down to zero after the schoolyard is transformed."
Lim of the University of Arizona is currently studying the health and academic effects of schoolyard renovations in about 200 schools in New York City. He's gathering evidence to show policymakers that such renovations make a difference. The research isn't finished, but Lim says his preliminary analysis has found that schools with schoolyards renovated into green spaces have better grades and better attendance rates than those without them.
Lim also plans to gather data looking at health outcomes – not just for students but also for people who live in communities surrounding the schools.
Because ultimately, the greener schoolyards aren't just for students. After school hours, it's open to the whole community – for picnickers, parents pushing strollers or people just looking for a place to exercise outdoors near home. Zeller says the school often hosts events like barbecues and family fitness nights where the everyone in the neighborhood is welcome.
A 10-minute walk to a park – for all
Andrea Lett lives a couple of blocks from the Anderson School. She says her son is often at the schoolyard well into the early evening.
"He loves the schoolyard," Lett says. "I mean, it gives him and other children an outlet, a safe place to go and have fun, because a lot of children, you know, in our community, they don't have nowhere to go, an outlet."
Denk says that's why the Trust for Public Land has helped transform nearly 300 schoolyards across the country so far – the group wants to give more people easy access to outdoor green space.
"You know, for us, this is a game-changing solution that is needed everywhere across the country," Denk says. "And it's doable, right? This can be done everywhere."
According to an analysis from the group, 100 million people in the U.S. — including 28 million children – don't have a park close to home. The group has calculated that if every school yard in the country were revamped and open after hours to the community, it would put 80 million people within a 10-minute walk of a park.
Just this week, another school broke ground on its schoolyard renovation, the F. Amedee Bregy School in South Philadelphia. That project was also spearheaded by a group of third graders in the design phase, which started several years ago.
Bregy teacher Nicole Lynn worked with the group of kids who were chosen to spearhead the renovation there. Lynn says the students learned about watersheds and went on field trips to other renovated schoolyards as part of their planning process. Those kids will be entering eighth grade in the fall, and they'll soon get to enjoy what they designed – including an outdoor stage area.
Lynn says she hopes they'll be the first eighth grade class to graduate on that stage once the renovations are completed.
"To see the core group of kids that really built it from the ground up be able to graduate on that stage – it's really something special," Lynn says.
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