New international group forms to address an increasingly sedentary and risk-averse generation of children disconnected from nature.

BayTreeDesign_Schoolyard2_web.jpgGrowing school grounds movement gains international voice with formation of The International School Grounds Alliance.

Berkeley, California (April 24, 2012)  – Organizations working to enrich the lives of children through outdoor learning and play have a new global school ground network where they can turn for ideas and support.

Leaders in the school ground movement from Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States have formed the nonprofit International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA)(www.internationalschoolgrounds.org), which brings together a wealth of experience in the fields of school ground use, design, education and management around the globe. The ISGA invites like-minded organizations and professionals to become members and collaborate to nurture and grow the international movement to help schools make the most of learning and play opportunities on their grounds.

“Children around the world, growing up in very different environments and cultural settings, all need engaging childhood learning and play experiences for healthy development and enjoyment,” says ISGA co-founder Sharon Danks of Bay Tree Design in California. “The ISGA is not only a resource, but is also a call to action for teachers, parents, and students to go outside, improve their school grounds and explore the world first-hand.”

The ISGA believes that school grounds should:

  • provide powerful opportunities for hands-on learning
  • nurture students’ physical, social and emotional development and wellbeing
  • reflect and embrace their local ecological, social and cultural context
  • embrace risk-taking as an essential component of learning and child development
  • be open public spaces, accessible to their communities

The ISGA does this by:

  • focusing on the way school grounds are used, designed and managed
  • facilitating a dialogue about innovative research, design, education and policy
  • fostering partnerships between professionals and organizations across the globe
  • organizing international conferences, gatherings and other programs
  • advocating for student and school community participation in the design, construction and stewardship of school grounds
  • promoting the value of enriched school grounds as uniquely positioned, engaging environments for children

To commemorate the founding of the ISGA, the organization has launched a website (www.internationalschoolgrounds.org) and just released a brief new inspirational video, entitled Voices from the International School Grounds Movement, which includes perspectives from leaders in the school ground movement and inspiring photographs of school grounds around the world. (www.greenschoolyards.org/blog).


BayTreeDesign_schoolyard_web.jpgSchool grounds are crucial childhood landscapes, both in terms of the considerable time spent there and the messages to children (both explicit and implicit) that come from their design and care. They are located in almost every neighborhood, town and city around the world, and often act as important community gathering places in addition to their roles as places of learning and play during the school day. For many children, school grounds are the primary place they play outside—so what they experience there resonates with them and helps to shape who they are.

“In this rapidly urbanizing century, there has been a substantial erosion of children’s outdoor time both for play and learning in the space of a single generation. The reasons for this decline – as well as the negative repercussions – are numerous. With ISGA we want to address these issuesand reverse the trend.” says ISGA co-founder Cam Collyer of Evergreen in Canada.

In today’s world, children’s opportunities for outdoor learning and play in nature are disappearing around the globe, due to a variety of influences that include:

  • cities that are poorly designed for both children and natural systems
  • overprogrammed childhoods that leave children with little free time
  • powerful parental fears of “stranger danger” and an increasing fear of risk and liability
  • school grounds that are barren expanses with little to support children’s play and learning

BayTreeDesign_Danks_web.jpgISGA co-founder Mary Jackson of Learning through Landscapes in the United Kingdom says, “As research from around the world tells us, learning and play outside can have a truly positive impact on our children. Their results improve, they concentrate more in lessons, they develop their interpersonal and social skills and have improved mental and physical health. Already many schools around the world are seeing this is true as they develop and use their grounds for the benefit of children, but there is still a long way to go and we want to be able to share lessons learned with schools across the globe. The ISGA is a great way of sharing these lessons.”

Join the Movement!

We invite organizations and individuals to join us and declare their commitment to creating and caring for these special environments that support children and young people’s learning, play and wellbeing. Membership is free. Join the ISGA to help build this global movement:

The next ISGA conference will be hosted by Evergreen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in Fall 2013.

For More Information

  • Please contact Sharon Danks at info (at) internationalschoolgrounds.orgor 510-644-1320
  • Inspiring, full color images of school grounds around the world are available upon request.

It’s difficult for schoolyard activists to understand why green schoolyards are often considered “supplemental”  or “nice but non-essential” to the core educational mission of our schools. To us, these dynamic and multi-functional green spaces are the best thing to happen to K-12 education since sliced bread. And frankly, sliced bread is not that great by comparison! A typical green schoolyard serves three primary functions, each of which, we believe, are important parts of educating the whole child.

Recreation & Fitness – Traditionally, school grounds have been used for recess and after school sports. Ball fields and courts, play structures, tracks, and various creative types of exercise stations help contribute to a healthy body and, in turn, help develop a healthy mind. Ask any teacher how productive their students are when deprived of recess. Ask yourself how productive you would be at work if you could never leave your desk. Schools cutting back on recess are making a big mistake.

Teaching & Learning – We all have different learning styles and while some of us thrive on “book learning”, some of us don’t. As Howard Gardner outlined in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, people have a variety of aptitudes and learn in a variety of ways. Experiential learning takes a hands-on, learn-by-doing approach that resonates with many learners. In the indoor classroom, students are exposed to key concepts through reading, online research, call and response with their teacher and class discussion. In an outdoor classroom, which may include food gardens, wild habitat areas, water flow systems, renewable energy demonstrations, bird feeders, compost bins and more, students use all of their senses, interact with primary source materials, engage in group data collection and problem-solving and learn the fundamentals of systems thinking. A school without an outdoor classroom is missing the opportunity to reinforce key concepts with hands-on activities in a real world setting.

Social Gathering & Community Building – Young people need to hang out, play, interact, be constructive, resolve conflicts and make friends in a safe (and sometimes supervised) social setting. The schoolyard is a safe open space (when parks are sometimes not) and is literally the common ground between the school and the surrounding community. When a green schoolyard is put to its highest use, it is being used by before and after school programs, summer camps, and during off hours by neighborhood residents. Great synergies are often attained when these various groups communicate with each other. And, of course, kids sometimes learn as much through creative play as they do through formal classroom instruction.

When the teacher asks the class, who wants to go outside, every hand goes up. When one observes students engaged in outdoor learning their energy and curiosity is palpable. These are not students burning out – these are students in the process of becoming life long learners.

Top Ten Reasons to have an

Outdoor Classroom in Every Schoolyard

  1. Shifts educational focus from secondary to primary sources. Traditional classroom teaching uses textbooks, lectures, video and the internet as instructional tools. The Outdoor Classroom exposes students through direct experience to nature areas and demonstration models such as weather stations, water flow systems and renewable energy installations.
  2. Uses experiential teaching methodologies to engage students. The Outdoor Classroom fosters active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning in a real world setting. Through group problem-solving activities students embrace the learning process as well as seeking final outcomes.
  3. Makes learning a multi-sensory experience. By engaging the senses of touch, smell, hearing, taste and seeing, students retain an intimate physical memory of activities that are long lasting and synergistic. E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis reminds us that the human species, having evolved in the natural world, has a deeply-rooted need to associate and connect with nature.
  4. Fosters the use of systems thinking. As a mini-ecosystem, the Outdoor Classroom emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things. Through exposure to the intricate web of life, students come to understand that complex natural and societal systems often require holistic rather than linear solutions.
  5. Lends itself to inter-disciplinary studies. In seeking a holistic understanding of the outdoor classroom it is often necessary, and desirable, to employ multiple academic disciplines. Laying out a planting bed requires math skills. Distinguishing native from non-native plants provides an opportunity for social studies. Creating a scarecrow is an art project. A garden journal will foster writing and drawing skills.
  6. Recognizes and celebrates differing learning styles. As popularized in Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, people have a variety of aptitudes and ways of learning. Although some students thrive in a text-based environment, others will benefit from a more experiential approach. For example, ESL students, SPED students, and students where reading is not prioritized at home – those that comprise the so-called Achievement Gap – may contribute more in the Outdoor Classroom.
  7. Connects the school to the neighborhood and the world-at-large. Through learning and stewardship activities students come to understand that their schoolyard microcosm reflects global environmental issues. Proximity to the surrounding neighborhood often leads to service learning projects that emphasize social involvement and responsibility. Accessibility to the Outdoor Classroom provides opportunities for out-of-school time programming. High visibility and interest encourages local volunteerism.
  8. Design and installation is a modest capital expense. School systems often struggle with budgetary issues in prioritizing initiatives. The cost/benefit ratio for installing and sustaining an Outdoor Classroom is attractive and the goal of an Outdoor Classroom in every schoolyard is achievable.
  9. Projects a positive message about public education. Schoolyards can be degraded and unsafe or vibrant, dynamic school/community open spaces. Either way, we send a message to students and neighborhood about how much we value the education of our children. The Outdoor Classroom is a reminder that innovation is alive and well in public education.
  10. Blurs the boundaries between academic learning and creative play. Kids love the Outdoor Classroom. When a teacher asks who wants to go outside every hand is raised. Absenteeism goes down on Outdoor Classroom days. By preserving a child’s innate sense of curiosity and wonder we will foster active and engaged life long learners. Yes, learning can be FUN!

Reduced class size. Longer school days. Accountability through testing. Better teachers. Managing the drop-out rate. Dealing with unions. Remedial programs. Special education and ELL students. Safety in school. The list goes on…….we know public education is in dire straits and that there are many brilliant minds and kind hearts trying to find solutions to a complex set of problems. But let’s look for a moment at the end user who should be the focus of all this attention – The Child.

What motivates a kid to learn? Perhaps it’s sitting all day listening to an adult telling you to go to page 57 and read a paragraph or work out a math problem. Perhaps not. Maybe it’s memorizing facts and figures (It’ll be on the test!) about a distant time before your grandparents were born.  Maybe not.

It seems to me that kids are ACTIVE and SOCIAL beings that have an INNATE CURIOSITY about the world around them. We should be using these attributes as a springboard into the wonderful (yes, wonder full) world of learning. A green schoolyard dispenses with the chairs, desks, walls, ceiling, chalkboards and just about everything else found in the indoor classroom. It is an open active space that is asymmetrical and sensory-rich with things to touch, smell, hear, observe, and, yes, taste. It is a patch of land surrounded by a real world neighborhood. It seethes with  possibilities and beckons children to embark together on a journey of discovery. The teacher can even come along.

So, we’re sitting on a boulder in a corner of the schoolyard. This boulder is part of a crude circle of  rocks that reflect local geology. In fact, the school building itself was partially constructed from this same type of stone. The heavy rocks were quarried by immigrants that came from another country to start new lives here (just like many families today). Can we see any other buildings in the neighborhood built with the same kind of stones? How come the new school annex has been built with other materials? Wait a minute, what is a rock, anyway? We take out our hand lenses and begin to take a REALLY close look at our collection of rocks. What are these little sparkly pieces? Why is this one bumpy and this one is smooth? Look at all the bugs under this one? We are engaged in learning. It is not particularly linear, or organized in the traditional way, but it is interesting and has raised many questions. Now, the teacher can take a bunch of curious and excited students back inside to use their texts or the internet to assist in finding answers.

We have entered the school garden. We pick some mint leaves and put them in water jugs in the sun. Later we’ll drink solar-heated mint tea. We wonder why the dwarf pine tree has kept its needles while the apple tree is losing its leaves. We pick up the leaves and add them to our compost pile. A monarch butterfly hovers around our milkweed plant and a big crow perches on the fence post. Our wind-driven pump helps to send water through the irrigation channels we’ve dug. The wind dies down and the flow of water stops. Our scarecrow, that everyone agrees looks a little like the Assistant Principal, sighs as the crow alights on his head. We laugh and just feel really good….this is fun!

I’m sitting at the top of the slide looking at the colorful mural painted on our school. It’s just like a picture in a storybook but 1000 times bigger. I helped paint the ships sailing off to sea and a little bit of the dancer with a torch. I could gaze and dream forever but Willie is pushing me down the slide now. We spend alot of time running around like crazy because we can’t move around in class.

Alright, enough with the vignettes, but I hope you catch my drift. An active and multi-functional schoolyard doesn’t have to REPLACE the indoor classroom but can ADD to the overall mission of our schools – educating the whole child. After all, it’s not as if we have to buy the land – we just need to use what we have creatively. Educators and schoolyard activists can tell you that student engagement in the outdoor classroom is the LEAST of their worries. Kids love to be outside doing stuff. Why not take advantage of this friendly learning environment to further our educational goals and objectives.

Smaller class size and longer school days? Sounds like a good idea to me. But let’s make sure that our kids want to be there. Let’s mix it up and offer different approaches to instruction that embrace our childrens many different learning styles. Some people hate their jobs. Others can’t wait to get to work. Public education should aim for the latter.

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This short video was produced by Ross Miller and Maura Cunningham at the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in Boston. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids had an outdoor classroom in which to play and learn?