A fashionable pupil at Sherman contributes to the greening of the schoolyard.
Credit: The Miller Company
California landscape architect Jeff Miller bends
over a hand-operated water pump in a playground
sandbox at the San Francisco School.
Three preschoolers from the 270-student academy
in San Francisco's Bernal Heights District watch as Miller
directs a stream of water into a pail, the crucial first step in
building a sand castle.
Miller, who designed this play yard,
explains to the boys that, in his professional opinion, "the sand
is a little coarse to stick together." Undeterred, the kids mix the
sand and water in the pail and flip it upside down into the
sandbox. What comes out approximates a castle tower, or at
least the ancient ruin of a castle tower.
In designing the school's outdoor recreation areas, Miller
has used very little of that once-unavoidable playground material,
asphalt. Instead, he has followed a greener path. During
a tour, he points out examples of sustainable schoolyard
design, including a 25-foot-long "creek" created from discarded
paving stones, ornate fencing crafted using recycled wood
from old chicken coops, and climbing trees adorned with blue
stripes that mean "Go no higher."
Farther along, he proudly points out what he considers the
playground's pièce de résistance, another water pump set in a
plot of dirt just the right consistency to make dark, viscous
mud for castles, mud pies, dams, waterfalls, alluvial floodplains,
and other joy-producing, pint-size hydrologic projects.
There are kid-size shovels, buckets, and other tools ready to be
deployed in the cause of play. The only requisite is that before
mud play, kids must first don a pair of the rubber boots lined
up at the top of the site.
Starting with the San Francisco School playground, Miller
launched a career designing naturalistic, sustainable public and
private school garden/play yards throughout the Bay Area.
Today, he is an important player in the green-schoolyard
movement, activists, designers, parents, and educators from
across the country who believe, as Miller suggests, "that 'soft,'
creative play should be encouraged as part of the socialization
process as well as part of the curriculum."
Looks Like a Plan: Landscape architect Jeff Miller's drawing for the green schoolyard at Sherman Elementary School provides a playground, park, and learning environment for students. The site, now being built by kids and parents as well as construction professionals, will include a labyrinth, a stone amphitheater, an edible garden, and greenhouses.
Credit: The Miller Company
For Miller and other GSMers, the traditional theory no
longer holds that kids -- read: boys -- need the Darwinian terrain
of the asphalt jungle/playground on which to exhaust
their fierce energy and then return, spent, to the traditional
classroom. Instead, Miller views the green schoolyard as the
natural, inevitable extension of the indoor classroom where
play goes hand-in-hand with subjects including life and
earth sciences, social studies, math, art, "ecoliteracy," and
nutrition. For Miller, and other "garden educators," the
GSM is steeped in a belief that kids should view nature up
close, "and see for themselves how a fava bean begins with a
flower," says Miller.
Joe Frost, emeritus professor of education at the University
of Texas, is the past president of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play. For more than thirty years, he has been fighting for the kinds of schoolyards he believes are essential to a well-rounded mental and physical education.
Though Frost isn't dogmatic about asphalt, believing that
blacktops "give children the opportunity to be involved in
organized games," he was an early supporter of green schoolyards.
"The best play yard," he says, "is a natural play yard."
Frost has employed the playgrounds at Austin's Redeemer
Lutheran School as the site of the University of Texas Play
and Playgrounds Research Project, which he heads. Over the
years, nearly a dozen playground designs have been built,
tested, and rebuilt.
Throughout that time, Frost struggled against what he
considers the national disaster brought about by a combination
of high-stakes academic testing and playground-related
lawsuits. These, he says, "have denied kids the time and opportunity
for outdoor play." He talks lyrically about his own
Depression-era school experience in Arkansas's Ouachita
Mountains, the lack of standardized equipment, and the richness
of the play experience. This, Frost contrasts with "the last
three to four decades, during which we have seen this amazing
change that has largely brought play indoors."
Frost believes the trend can be reversed, noting such
influences as Richard Louv's 2005 best-selling book Last
Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit
Disorder, and former U.S. vice president Al Gore's Earth in
the Balance, as well as the growth of the green-schoolyard
movement. He views hopefully the growth in what he sees as a
key element of the GSM: a focus on the garden as a provider
of sustenance, both educational and nutritional.
Credit: The Miller Company
"The more kids understand about growing healthy food,
the more they want to eat it," says Linda Myers, volunteer
garden coordinator at San Francisco's Sherman Elementary
School. The connection between education and food is an
important learning element at Sherman, a GSM flagship.
Nutrition was central to the mid-1990s germination of
famed restaurateur Alice
Waters's Edible Schoolyard project. Taking a blighted 1-acre plot near Martin Luther
King Middle School, in Berkeley, California, Waters created
a source for fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables. Over
the last decade, the Edible Schoolyard has transformed the
diets of MLK students, helped Berkeley become a center of
GSM thinking, and inspired schools such as
Sherman, where Jeff Miller is creating another of his
As yet, there isn't a lot of green at
Sherman. The asphalt that covered the
school's east-side playground has been dug
up and removed, replaced by 120 cubic
yards of wood chips that cover the gentle
slope down to the school's entrance. A
semicircle of hay bales is set in the southeastern
corner, an inexpensive preview of a
stone amphitheater that, in Miller's plan, will nestle among
His ambitious plan also foresees a bird and butterfly
habitat, a vegetable garden, a greenhouse, a stream, and a
waterfall. If there is still much to be done at Sherman, the hay
bales are already a favorite spot for students looking for some
respite from the din of a hundred elementary school kids
playing kickball on the asphalt playground that will remain
in place on the school's west side.
Follow the Money Trail
The new natural play yard already features a concrete path
embossed with leafy imprints of gingko, bamboo, and other
trees and plants that will ultimately grow there. This undulating
path is actually the budgetary tail wagging the GSM dog. Funding for Sherman and similar projects in
some three dozen other San Francisco schools comes from
bond measures originally designed to raise $750 million to
meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. In something
of a fiscal sleight-of-hand, ADA funds were made available
for school-greening projects that created paths that were
both green and accessible.
Over the last decade, greening California's schools has
become a popular political battle cry. It is exemplified by the
1997 reelection-campaign promise of Delaine Easton, former
state superintendent of schools, of "a garden in every school."
In 2003 and again in 2006, local politicians, sensing a no-lose
issue when they saw one, earmarked some $7 million
to create natural playgrounds.
The city, however, left the process of tapping into the
bond fund pretty much up to
individual schools. Lori
Shelton, assistant project
manager for one of San
Francisco's Green Schoolyard
Programs, notes that "just
because funds were available
didn't mean that a school community
was ready to embrace
the program." Funding came
down to the time and sweat parents, teachers, and
administrators were willing to
put into their own green-schoolyard project.
Supported by Principal
Phyllis Matsuno, Sherman's
PTA was one of the first in
California ready to proceed. By 2003, the group had organized
its greening committee, and it sent representatives to a
2004 city-sponsored Green School Grounds Conference. The
two-day gathering included seminars with titles such as
Bamboo Shade Structures, Groceries from the Garden, and
Teaching Science and Math in the Schoolyard and a forum
called Finding Resources for Your Green Schoolyard Project.
This last seminar was crucial, because though bond
money paid for "hard" infrastructure, such as grading, irrigation
lines, trees, plants, ponds, and plantings, the more
ambitious a particular school's "soft" green dreams, the more
adept supporters needed to be at grant writing. Extra money
was critical, for example, to fund a garden-education coordinator
whose job was to not only integrate green elements into
the curriculum but also to reassure overburdened teachers
rightfully suspicious that this new natural twist on learning
would simply be another career-complicating program.
"We really did need to get teachers more comfortable with the curriculum aspects of the Green Schoolyard," says Linda
Myers, Sherman's garden-education coordinator. Additional
money was also needed to pay for ongoing grounds care, as
overtasked school district maintenance crews could not take
the time to serve as true gardeners.
Key to meeting the shortfall of long green to pay for the
school's greening was the sheer enthusiasm of Kent David,
father of two Sherman students, now head of the campus's Green
Schoolyard Committee, along with Myers and the principal. Sherman parents stretched available dollars by doing
their own site preparation, mulching, grading, paving, and laying
down a permeable cover. Even the project's architect, Jeff
Miller, besides providing a spectacular landscape plan, donated
his own sweat equity by running a Bobcat grader during
Sherman's green-schoolyard weekends.
The end result was a garden that grew both the plants and
a sense of purpose. Not bad for a schoolyard.
Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes
regularly to Edutopia.
The Luxe Model
The poster school for the greening of asphalt deserts is
the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center. This sixty-year-old San Francisco school in the city's Marina
District went green in the early 1990s, with 20,000
square feet of blacktop removed and replaced by an
educational Eden complete with native plantings, shady
rest areas, and a nature preserve for the three Bs:
birds, butterflies, and bugs.
The impetus for greening
Tule Elk Park came from its clientele, children of low-income
families who, as likely as not, had never
been in natural surroundings. Even today, Sherman
Elementary School parent Kent David suggests, "a lot
of kids simply never have a chance to get their hands
dirty." Tule Elk provided such an opportunity.
problem, according to Nan McGuire, chair of the San
Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, was in the very
richness of Tule Elk's transformation. "Many people
go there to see what they'd like in their own green
schoolyard," she says about this "Mercedes model,"
but the Tule Elk outdoor redo cost a half-million
dollars more than it did a decade ago, far beyond
the means of most public schools today.