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Great Ideas for Green Schoolyards

  • Lea School parent and charrette participant Maurice Jones. Sketches and ideas were presented immediately following the daylong charrette.


Last week’s Transforming Urban Schoolyards design charrette demonstrated how both the visionary and the quotidian must be considered in the greening of schoolyards. How do we get kids to think globally about the environment? How do we benefit the whole neighborhood? Isn't there a better place to put the trash?

Greening Greenfield, a sustainable schoolyard for Greenfield Elementary School, spurred widespread interest in greening schoolyards and led to the design charrette. Based on Greenfield's success, dozens of parents, teachers, students, and administrators at other Philadelphia public schools formed a coalition to advocate for greening schoolyards and many approached the Collaborative for help envisioning their green schoolyards. The results of the charrette are intended to provide models for schoolyards throughout the city.

Four teams of designers and teachers, students, parents, and advocates for education, sustainability, and wellness collaborated on schoolyard greening schemes for Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia and Kelly Elementary School in Germantown.

The charrette teams pinned up their work and presented it in a public reveal immediately following the charrette. See some of the ideas highlighted in, flying kite, and OLIN.

The ideas and sketches from the charrette will be assembled into a print and digital document for use by Lea, Kelly, and other green schoolyard advocates. For now, here’s a rough cut: a sampling of the sketches in place at the pin-up and the teams at work:

Lea Elementary School Team 1: The Schoolyard as the New Front Door
At many Philly public elementary schools, the formal front entrance isn’t used much anymore. Instead, students gather and enter the school from the playground at the start of the day. Lea is no exception. Parents, students, and teachers mingle while students line up outside in the a.m., and the playground has become an important part of the social life of Lea beyond recess. This design team redesigned the playground with a wide entrance, more gathering spaces, and flags reflecting an international student body.

Lea Elementary School Team 2: Trash Becomes a Teachable moment

Those big dumpsters stuck in every urban schoolyard seem diabolically placed to obstruct flow, play, and views. Dumpsters need to be accessible for pick-up, but almost every team found a less obtrusive option for placing them. This design team moved the dumpster from the central playground to a smaller play area, pairing it with a new composting and recycling center to make trash part of an environmental education curriculum.

Kelly Elementary School Team 1: Wellness Trail

Both Kelly teams responded to the community’s goal to “create a place within the neighborhood where wellness would be celebrated.” Both teams had to reconcile the strong geometries of the 70s-era school building (dubbed “the mother ship”) with the gentler lines of a natural landscape. Circulation became the organizing factor in both designs. The first team created a walking trail around the periphery of the school site that “gets people moving.” The trail links a series of natural habitat and garden areas.

Kelly Elementary School Team 2: Wellness Loop

“Good ideas are not necessarily original ideas,” said team member Jeff Goldstein, a principal of DIGSAU, noting the similarity between the proposals from the Kelly teams. This team created a loop within the playground that “invites students and neighborhoods to move through a diverse natural landscape.” Team member Vicki Mehl of Hansberry Children’s Garden Center, stressed the importance of “exposing kids to their connection with nature” and providing a landscape that tangibly answers the question: “where does my food come from?”

Many thanks to the remarkable people who collaborated at the charrette, came out to learn more at the public reveal, and offered their special knowledge to inform and lead this public forum on transforming urban schoolyards.

Transforming Urban Schoolyards was organized by the Community Design Collaborative, AIA Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the US Environmental Protection Agency Region 3.

Special thanks to event sponsors Buell Kratzer Powell and W. S. Cumby.


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