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.