Sharon Danks founded the California nonprofit Green Schoolyards America in 2013 with a relatively straightforward idea: Teach kids how, and why, to care for their school grounds, and they in turn will create healthy and resilient cities of the future.

Learning outdoors — and learning about the outdoors — are key to Danks’ mission. So in this era of COVID-19, schools across the country have been soliciting Danks’ advice on how to take education outdoors, safely. The pandemic has lent urgency to her vision, but her long-term goals remain the same.

“There isn’t enough enjoyment and happiness designed into our education systems, so that’s definitely a central goal of Green Schoolyards,” she says. “But from an ecological perspective, the schoolyard should ideally reflect the city we’d like to have.” Case studies featuring successful schoolyard transformations are posted on Green Schoolyards’ website, along with planning tools that take into account limited budgets and space. One public school in Harlem, for example, features a low-cost design option that takes advantage of existing tree canopy for shade and suggests straw bales, willow, or potted plants to serve as barriers.

Danks talked to Fix about why remote learning hurts the most vulnerable kids, how outdoor classrooms mitigate viral transmission, and why schoolyards are key to fighting climate change. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Greening the asphalt jungle

         Sharon Danks

Research demonstrates the therapeutic benefits of green landscapes: Just looking at trees reduces stress levels and increases our ability to pay attention. William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, has shown that schools with no trees leave test score points on the table. It’s also a major equity issue. Kids are vulnerable to heat, and they are also closer to radiant surfaces — they feel it more than adults do. And there is, consistently, less forest canopy in lower-income areas.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make urban spaces green, and I see urban greening as a consensus problem over anything else. What that means is, we know how to make green cities, but we haven’t decided as a society that it’s a priority.

I wrote a book called Asphalt to Ecosystems, with the idea that school grounds can be a microcosm of the ecological systems we want a green city to have. The idea is that kids will grow up surrounded by these systems and understand how they work.

As adults, it’s hard to make good decisions about how to plan a city if you don’t understand how ecological systems work — especially if these systems have been made invisible, as they are so often in urban contexts. So many schools are surrounded by asphalt, and when rain falls on the roof of one of these schools, it flows through a downspout that’s sandwiched between walls directly to a buried creek and piping underneath the building. Kids aren’t able to see rain roll off of a roof, flow across the ground, and soak into a wetland.

Two million acres of opportunity

Schools manage a huge amount of public land: In California alone, it’s 130,000 acres, with about 6.2 million kids and 250,000 or so adults on that land every day, which makes it some of the most well-used public land in this country. More people use school land in California every day than visit Yosemite in an entire year, yet we don’t invest in that land in the same way. And we estimate that schools across the U.S. manage around 2 million acres in total, though no one has quantified that land because city planners don’t usually take into account land that belongs to schools.

I founded Green Schoolyards America because helping one school at a time for me was too slow. I wanted to figure out how to drive systemic change, so that every child can go to school in green spaces that contribute to their health and well-being, while also contributing to the underlying ecological health and resilience of our cities.

A school ground can demonstrate how a piece of land might be managed democratically by all who use it, including kids, teachers, and the larger school community. You can grow plants to attract butterflies and birds, remove asphalt and allow the stormwater to soak into the earth, or plant trees to cool the environment. Kids can watch the seasons change through the leaves, watch the butterflies and birds migrate, raise food in their school gardens, and ultimately understand how these pieces are all connected. This way, they learn what should be built on our public lands, and they become stewards of our public spaces.

Increasing demand

We were working with our school-district partners in the Bay Area to create curricula for fourth graders to measure the temperatures of their schoolyards. Then COVID hit. We knew that moving classes outdoors could be key to reopening schools, not just in California but all across the U.S. Research indicates that COVID transmission rates are 20 times lower outdoors than indoors — so, unfortunately, we’re in triage mode. There’s not enough space inside school buildings for kids to sit six feet apart, and those old buildings weren’t built with adequate ventilation systems.

We pulled together a partnership to host a webinar with several local organizations, including the Lawrence Hall of Science and Ten Strands. I was stunned when over 1,000 people signed up for it, and it has been viewed over 5,000 times so far. Now we are in the middle of a national effort to help schools and districts take learning outdoors.

A whole new lesson book

Online learning is inherently unequal: it’s estimated that 30 percent of kids in California don’t have high-speed internet access, so they can’t access Zoom lessons. Remote learning hurts the kids that are already the most vulnerable. For the moment, we’ve shifted our work to try and get as many kids back to school, outside, as quickly as possible, as safely as possible, and as comfortably as possible.

As an organization, I feel we’ve finally hit the tipping point: We’re seeing an outpouring from schools across the U.S. asking us for help — over 130 schools in 25 states so far. We have about 500 volunteers and about 20 partner organizations that are helping to run our 11 working groups, which focus on everything from ensuring equity to documenting case studies of successful outdoor learning. We have a group of landscape designers who are helping schools plan out where kids can sit, what to use as shelter, how to prepare for inclement weather.

Right now, it’s all about shade umbrellas and raincoats. But we hope to get back to our long-term message: What do we want for our children at school? How can that environment help protect them from climate change? Here in California, with smoke constantly outside our houses, the climate urgency is very clear.