Jaime ZaplatoschToday’s guest post highlights how schools can help children and communities benefit from access to natural environments. Written by Jaime Zaplatosch, director of Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities at the Children & Nature Network, the piece advocates for equity-based green schoolyard development.

Imagine a schoolyard that is more than a sparse blacktop with minimal playground equipment available only to students during school hours. Picture a multi-functional landscaped space that includes places for students, teachers, parents and community members to play, learn, explore and grow all the time.

This is the green schoolyards vision of the Children & Nature Network, or C&NN, which is leading a global movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children can thrive. We advocate for schoolyards to include outdoor classrooms, native and pollinator gardens, storm water capture, traditional and natural play areas, edible gardens, trails and more.

Over the past few decades, our society has become increasingly urban. Our children are spending more time indoors than ever before. Yet continually emerging research tells us that spending time in nature is good for us. It is associated with improved cardiovascular health, enhanced immune system functioning and better pregnancy and birth outcomes, as well as decreased stress, better self-regulation, improved attention and enhanced social connectedness and cooperation.

Neighborhood health, such as increased community cohesion and lower levels of crime, is also associated with neighborhood greenness. And researchers are finding that children in low-income communities may benefit from time in nature to an even greater degree than their higher-income peers.

In 2016, C&NN launched its Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative with the report, Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. This scan of the green schoolyards field in the U.S. includes recommendations for making green schoolyards a reality in every community.

Since then, cross-sector partners have come together to support one vision that “all U.S. communities offer access to green schoolyards by 2050 to enhance children’s healthy development, community wellbeing and positive environmental impacts.”

This is the cornerstone of the APHA-endorsed Green Schoolyards Action Agenda that outlines five goals and supporting actions that will help us achieve the 2050 vision. C&NN designed the agenda with input from community members, leaders and experts to increase equitable access to nature in U.S. schoolyards through funding, policy, communications and awareness-building.

Over the past 18 months, APHA has collaborated with C&NN to raise awareness of green schoolyards and their benefits, and to help integrate nature and green schoolyards into the health equity movement.

In July 2017, APHA staff participated in the Health Equity Policy Roundtable to Advance Green Schoolyards, which informed the Green Schoolyards Action Agenda. Then in May 2018, APHA staff attended the C&NN Leadership Summit, where they worked with national and local partners to advance green schoolyard awareness, policy and funding.

Though city-wide green schoolyard programs have existed in pockets around the U.S. for over 40 years, most school campuses aren’t very inviting or as useful as they could be. Yet schools and their campuses are typically publicly owned community centers that have great potential to be more than they are.

Cities such as Houston, New York, Denver, San Francisco, Boston and more recently Chicago, Philadelphia and Newark have been transforming their schoolyards. But we have a long way to go for all to enjoy the benefits of green schoolyards. Please consider connecting with our work and joining the Children & Nature Network to create the schoolyards that all of our communities deserve.