When kids can play and interact with nature, their health and wellbeing can flourish. Discover how green school grounds are the perfect setting for improving health—and creating more equitable communities.
Schools are more than just classrooms—they should be places where children can thrive and grow up as healthy as possible. People may often imagine four walls and a whiteboard when they think of a school. But we also imagine school grounds and their potential to provide kids opportunities to learn about the world, create their own space, improve health, experience nature—and ultimately shape entire communities for the better.
At our respective organizations, Children & Nature Network and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we reflect on how nature and healthy environments impact children and communities. As a senior vice president at Children & Nature Network, Jaime thinks about this every day, reflecting on research that shows nature makes kids healthier, happier, and smarter. As a senior program officer at RWJF working with Global Ideas for U.S. Solutions and Health & Climate Solutions, Sharon sees how critical and empowering a healthy environment is for everyone, including places such as Austin, Texas, and Morocco. Sharon has also seen communities transform into greener, nature-filled environments that can close health equity gaps and create more sustainable, climate-resilient spaces and as a positive consequence—climate resilient people.
Most kids spend their weekdays at school, making them an apt environment to bring kids closer to nature. Schools are also a focal point and gathering place for many communities, and data tells us that greenspaces, schools, and other meeting locations that make up civic infrastructure are critical to health.
For many children, school may be their only time to safely play, exercise, and connect with nature. Spaces that invite children and communities to engage with nature—sometimes known as green school grounds—can help close these health equity gaps and encourage kids to become stewards and designers of their environments. And with this, convince local leaders to follow suit for entire communities.
For instance, in California, students join health professionals and environmental researchers to advocate for schools that are designed to withstand the impacts of climate change, which highlights why a comprehensive understanding of nature is so important. This is more important than ever as the threat of climate change grows globally—from heatwaves to floods and drought to increased severe hurricanes and wildfires—makes spending time outside more challenging and even unhealthy.
How nature influenced our childhoods and careers
Our passion inspires us to ensure everyone has access to outdoor spaces. This access is essential for achieving health equity—beginning with kids and rippling into families, neighborhoods, and even entire countries. Our experiences with nature both transformed our childhoods and influenced the trajectories of our careers.
For Jaime, growing up across the street from a park on the south side of Chicago was a restorative experience. During stressful times, even just looking out at the trees and grass helped her relax and process what was happening in my life. Similarly, the garden in her backyard provided rejuvenation when she needed it most. Weeding that garden with her dad wasn't always on the top of her list, but it did drum up wonder about nature and our environments.
Conversely, Sharon did not have access to green or natural spaces as a kid. The schools she attended were squeezed into the urban fabric. Science was textbook driven. Her food came from a budget-friendly supermarket. She knows many children today experience this, but she’s encouraged by the increasing number of schools bringing children and communities closer to nature. They use adjacent or nearby green spaces that extend classroom learning to create cool, permeable spaces and edible gardens. These gardens, for example, can even become venues for learning about healthy eating and supplementing school and collaborative community feeding programs. Green school grounds in their many forms are climate, people, and earth friendly. They are examples of multi-solving and open new pathways for equitable and sustainable community development.
Exploring the power of green school grounds
At the Children & Nature Network, the facets of green school grounds encompass so many important factors, including play, health, climate change resilience, community engagement and education. These sites across the world exemplify what’s possible when you bring nature to kids and communities:
Anthill Creations in Bangalore, India, was named for how “tiny ants come together to build something bigger than themselves,” shared Pooja Rai, co-founder of Anthill Creations. The project is committed to ensuring all kids have access to play. Thanks to their ingenuity, they have converted empty spaces into “sustainable playscapes.” Scrap materials take on a second life: Old tires and other scrap materials become swings, climbing structures, and slides. The children can’t get enough of these playgrounds built with communities to improve kids’ wellbeing. Their five-step process has helped them build over 400 playgrounds all across their country.
In Brazil, a movement called “Quintais Brincantes”, or “playful backyards,” is putting the focus on free and unstructured nature play as an essential to a healthy childhood. Many kids come to these spaces at the recommendation of a pediatrician or psychologist. These spaces—some at school and some in public or private areas—allow kids to play independently with everything from rocks and leaves to water and fruits. These areas have also become research environments, where primarily women volunteers observe and learn how central connection to nature and culture is to play. This movement is building the next generation of Brazilian learners.
Green school grounds benefit our health AND our communities at large. What happens at these schools can be a driver for building equity and inclusion across communities and neighborhoods, which is more important than ever as climate change threatens our health and environment and green spaces are privatized.
Whether you’re an educator, parent, or city official: You can help create these spaces in your community. Children & Nature Network provides research and resources to build momentum for greener school grounds in your community. You can even sign on to help build a world that creates equitable access to nature and its benefits.
Sharon Roerty, AICP, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is an urban alchemist who brings extensive expertise in built environments, transportation, and environmental and urban policy to the Foundation’s efforts to help create healthy communities.
Jaime Zaplatosch-Ehrenberg, senior vice president, Development and Partnerships for the Children & Nature Network, works with partners around the world to develop and implement city-wide equity-based nature connection initiatives and policies to support thriving communities.