Published: Dec. 15, 2023 By

Landscape studio collage

Sticky metal playgrounds and hot asphalt. Bare patches of dirt on browning soccer fields. Limited shade with no space for solitude and quiet. A small cluster of trees - sometimes. This is what tends to come to mind when we think about a typical schoolyard. Soon, however, six Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) schoolyards may receive a green makeover.  

As the third iteration of the Green Schoolyards Studio, third-year Landscape Design students have spent the past semester analyzing schoolyards, collaborating with school communities, and crafting feasible plans that redesign schoolyards for learning, creativity, mental health, and interactions with nature.  

We spoke with Assistant Professor Emily Greenwood about how her class approached this monumental task: 

What’s the idea behind “Green Schoolyards”? 
The inspiration came from work I did in my graduate program. A professor at CU Denver started this movement called Learning Landscapes which began with a few schoolyard designs and then became this 15-year-long project of redesigning all 52 Denver public schoolyards. I’m still really involved in the one that I designed from conception through construction. It planted a seed. 

At that time, we realized that schoolyards weren’t just for play - they can also be for learning. Schoolyards are really just public open space that we’ve accidentally set aside. So, taking advantage of them more as this public amenity and not just for play between the hours of nine and three. That’s the Green Schoolyards movement.  

What does the process look like for your students in the studio? 
I tell them that this project is their world, their oyster. They do a pretty good precedent analysis at the beginning and they’re designing it according to how they compiled that initial information. Then all of the student groups do a community engagement activity with students and parents.  

My students love this bit. Kids never get asked questions about what they want their spaces to look like. They can be super imaginative, and we can take those probably unrealistic ideas and make it into something that’s grounded. It’s totally the way to go. Because otherwise you go in and only respond to the site. And that’s such a small piece of the equation. There’s nothing cuter than asking kids what they want to see in their schoolyard. 

My students also did research to understand the mental health piece of the Green Schoolyards movement and then reached out to the community to elicit their feedback as to their needs and constraints. 

Can you tell us more about the mental health piece? 
This is from more modern research - we’re realizing that schoolyards should be play, they should be learning, they should be a community amendment and they could have spaces for all different types of people. There should be quiet spaces, private spaces, thinking spaces. It’s trying to incorporate all of those principles into schoolyard design. 

Are schools designed the same way for all age groups? 
It’s very different. It’s interesting culturally what we think students need. There’s a ton of research on developmental stages, but it feels to me that we kind of abandon them around middle school. I always use the example of swinging – you can’t tell me that a seventh grader doesn’t want to swing. It’s this universal human, self-regulating, nourishing activity that we just kind of pull out from under them at this certain, pretty random age.  

The elementary schools usually are rich with play equipment but not with other learning tools. Middle schools will just have tether ball courts and that’s it. And then there’s high schools – the one we’re working with has a great view of the Flatirons but every space around this school is just totally unprogrammed. The day we visited the sites I was wondering – are we actually making high schools harder for people who are already in the hardest years of their life? They are more easily bored and the mental health crisis in teens is horrifying. Maybe we could help with this.

To find out how redesigning schoolyards might be helping, we sat down with Lily Flanum, Slater Weil, and Danny Eisenstein, some of the students involved in the studio:

Landscape studio collageWhat are the main focus areas for your school’s design? 
Lily: We’re mostly focused on designing outdoor classrooms for mental health and incorporating Native land acknowledgment. Rather than just making a plaque we wanted to create a design centered around traditional medicinal herbs for students to learn and interact with. We also put seating in there and color-coded the different plants around it.  

How was the engagement with the students? 
Lily: This is our first community project. I loved it. We had a day where we asked them what their dream playground would be. Would they want more social space, more learning space? Their brains work so differently, they are so imaginative. In design, we’re so used to these standards that we confine ourselves to - why would we ever think outside the box? This one girl wanted tanning chairs and a pool. Other kids just wanted shade and more nature. One kid wanted a horse track. 

Danny: Generally, they wanted creative spaces and more terrain, more things to climb on. It’s very primal: they really just want to crawl around, dig in the dirt.   

Do you think pieces of your project will be implemented? 
Lily: Each school has different parameters. Our school will take our suggestions into account and budget for them. There's a lot of analysis that goes into it and you have to consider what’s actually important to the site and what the kids would actually use. A horse track would be awesome, but it’s also not the most realistic.  

The horse track may not make the cut, but other aspects of the students’ designs will likely be incorporated in the future. Greenwood elaborated: 

Are these schools going to be able to implement the plans once they are finished? 
Some schools have enough money to execute phase one in the first year, other schools use the material to apply for grants. What happens to those drawings depends on the school’s needs. But they at least have well-designed documents that could be pushed forward through a professional to become something that’s executional. This is part of how I convince the schools to do it. You’re going to have hundreds of donated design hours. Even if it’s not perfect, in the end, you have this amazing tool that saves so much money. 

Do you see growth in your students through this studio?  
Yes, it’s super cool. We all have these preconceived notions of what schoolyards are, largely based on our experience in whatever schools we went to. So, it does feel like as we add more research and better understanding of the precedence, the students understand more of the intricacies of what those spaces could be. It’s beautiful to bring fresh minds into that conversation.