Third-grader Danny Baeza and other students at Virgil I. Grissom Elementary School, a preK-8 school in the Hegewisch community on Chicago’s southeast side, jump, run, climb, ride on swings and do all the things you would expect kids to do on a playground at recess.
That’s often one of the most common experiences for students – if they’re lucky enough to have a space where they can play.
Less than a year ago Grissom students would not have had the same opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Now, Grissom is one of six schools in the city that has benefited from Space to Grow, a partnership that is transforming Chicago schoolyards into spaces that provide students, their families and the broader community with opportunities for active play and physical education, outdoor learning, gardening and engagement with nature. The program focuses on schools in underserved communities, schools that are routinely impacted by a lack of resources that can affect whether they have adequate playground space and equipment. Two schools in Millennium Reserve, Grissom and Schmid Elementary School in Pullman, now have redesigned schoolyards through the Space to Grow program. Schoolyards are tailored to each school and community.
The program encourages schools to introduce native plants to the schoolyard. These plants can attract insects and birds common to the area, typically withstand the test of time, help manage stormwater and align with curriculum focused on local ecosystems. The program also encourages schools to develop places where classes can be taught outdoors. It’s up to the school to decide what to include in their playground; thus far, all have chosen to have outdoor classrooms. For example, inside and outside Grissom School, teachers are learning how to incorporate schoolyard features in their lessons. One feature of the playground includes blocks that sit next to each other, like chairs in an outdoor classroom.
“We don’t say, ‘Here is a model,’” says Meg Kelly, Space to Grow Project Manager at Healthy Schools Campaign. “There’s real input and a buy-in process at each school.” Each school, in fact, is engaged in a months-long planning process that involves school staff, students and community members.
Space to Grow is part of a growing green schoolyard movement that was the focus of a national summit in Chicago in May.
“What kind of playground would we have without this program?” asks Grissom principal Dennis Sweeney. “Well, it would have been a big patch of asphalt and old, broken-down playground equipment, because that’s what we had before. We wouldn’t have had the resources to make the improvements to the playground that were really needed.” Now, Sweeney says, “Kids really look forward to going to the playground. They want to be out there.”
Another key component of the program responds to community (and regional) needs by helping to prevent floods. At Grissom, for example, for many years the playground would flood after severe rainfall. Space to Grow schoolyards include permeable elements that allow water to soak into the ground and provide safe and effective flood prevention. In addition, Space to Grow features an education component through which community members can learn how to prevent floods in their homes.
Space to Grow is managed by Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign. Openlands unites people and resources in the region around the goal of land and water protection, providing a healthy, vibrant space to live and work. Healthy Schools Campaign advocates for schools to have clean air, healthy food and physical activity to help shape children’s lifelong learning and health. Capital funds for the project have come from a variety of sources, including the Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Department of Water Management and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. The budget for each schoolyard is $1.5 million.
The project reflects a growing body of research that shows play has a wide range of benefits for children. According to a 2011 report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play offers more than cherished memories of growing up, it allows children to develop creativity and imagination while developing physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths.” And yet, recess is often an early casualty as schools strive to meet academic demands.
Early data indicates that Space to Grow is having a positive impact on children, families, schools and communities. Jaime Zaplatosch, vice president of community engagement and education for Openlands, says that research demonstrates an increase in physical activity among students who have actively participated in recess or play at the schoolyard through the program.
At Grissom, Danny Baeza’s mother, Esperanza, an instructional paraprofessional who works with students in classrooms at the school, says it’s now like “a dream” to watch kids play at the school.
Kim Urbaniak, chair of Grissom’s Local School Council, has two children at the school, a first-grader and a fourth-grader. “Before, the playground wasn’t inviting,” she says. “Now, in the morning, my nine-year-old wants to get to school before the bell rings. During the school day, you see how kids need to get outside. It’s an important part of learning. When they’ve played outside and go into the school, it’s like they’ve been rebooted.”
The experience of people connected to Grissom School does not stand alone: The Space to Grow program is itself poised to grow. The program is geared to complete 34 playgrounds by 2019.
“It’s a great thing for kids to have a place to meet up and play,” says Urbaniak. “Space to Grow has been an awesome opportunity for us.”