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Under Darleen Gearhart’s leadership at Sussex Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey, one initiative stood out for its positive impact on students. It wasn’t a new wing, a key hire, or a curricular overhaul. Instead, it was the top-to-bottom renovation of the schoolyard, which previously was a sea of sunbaked asphalt.
These days, the schoolyard is a green oasis. Working with The Trust for Public Land, the school banished the blacktop and installed garden beds, trees, new play equipment, a turf field, colorful murals, and an outdoor classroom. Students helped design the new space, which fostered a vibrant learning environment—indoors and out. Test scores and attendance rose, while disciplinary actions fell. “We were one of the worst schools in the district,” said Gearhart, “and during the eight years I was there, we became one of the best.”
Across the country, many schools send children to play on schoolyards that look more like parking lots than playgrounds. And students in low-income, racially diverse urban neighborhoods confront the worst inequities when it comes to the quality of their schoolyards.
Just as the pandemic underscored unequal access to parkland, it also shed a harsh light on the unequal access to green spaces in the nation’s schools. Students in well-off communities enjoyed schoolyards with trees and outdoor seating, allowing them to take classes outside and reduce the virus’s spread. By contrast, students in disadvantaged communities had little to coax them outdoors.
Even when the pandemic recedes, however, educators and parents—and especially schoolchildren—will want to tap the benefits offered by what The Trust for Public Land terms “Community Schoolyards.” They address many of society’s greatest challenges—equity, health, educational gaps, and climate—all at once.
A growing body of research points to the power of nearby green space to improve health. Communities with less green space are hotter, have worse air quality, and are more susceptible to catastrophic flooding. Children and adults without easy access to parks get less exercise and are at higher risk of obesity. Still other studies point to the power of nature to reduce stress and improve concentration.
The Trust for Public Land has worked with nearly 300 schools over the past two decades. In fact, no other organization has converted as many schoolyards in as many places. From New York City to Dallas and Philadelphia to Oakland, we have turned blacktop into verdant spaces. We have transformed the student experience one schoolyard at a time while expanding our focus from individual districts to entire cities.
“From an equity standpoint, for students who may not have that sense of tranquility in their own neighborhoods, we especially want to make sure that our schools have living schoolyards, that there are green spaces, that we have places for gardening,” said Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of California’s Oakland Unified School District, where we have partnered on schoolyards.
Students from underserved neighborhoods have access to far less park space than those in affluent communities. According to research from The Trust for Public Land, in the 100 largest cities, neighborhoods where residents predominantly identify as Black, Latinx, Asian, or Indigenous have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage than mostly white neighborhoods. The same pattern holds for low-income neighborhoods compared to high-income neighborhoods.
Schoolyards with natural elements such as trees and gardens benefit students in many ways. First, green schoolyards are cooler. School complexes dominated by brick and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, forming “heat islands” within communities. A recent study by The Trust for Public Land found that nationwide, 36 percent of the nation’s 50.8 million public school students attended school in a heat island, defined as 1.25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer or more, on average, than the surrounding town or city. Among that group, more than 1 million students attended school in an extreme heat island of 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer or more.
A cooler school is a better place to learn. A nationwide study of 10 million high school students who took the PSAT more than once found that hotter weather led to lower scores. And a study among New York City schoolchildren found that taking an exit exam on a 90 degrees Fahrenheit day significantly reduced test scores relative to testing on a 72 degrees Fahrenheit day. This decline in scores was equivalent to a quarter of the Black-white achievement gap.
The benefits of a renovated schoolyard extend beyond the school to the entire community. Thanks to shared-use agreements, more and more school districts allow residents use of schoolyards after school and on weekends.
Trees, grass, and shrubs have remarkable cooling powers. Vegetation and tree canopies reduce temperatures on school properties through direct shade, as well as a process called “evapotranspiration.” A comfortable, attractive schoolyard inspires creative play, exercise, and learning. By tearing up asphalt and planting trees in our nation’s schoolyards, we can have a direct impact on student learning.
We urge school board leaders and school districts to consider allocating a portion of their American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding, which is available until September 2023, to develop Community Schoolyards. Bond measures also are an effective tool for raising funds to support such schoolyard projects. Please reach out to us if you need assistance getting started or visit tpl.org/community-schoolyards to learn more.
Diane Regas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the CEO and president of The Trust for Public Land.