In her new book Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, Berkeley-based environmental planner Sharon Danks explores the ways in which landscape design, architecture, child development, and nutrition converge in the schoolyard. OnEarth sat down with Danks, whose firm, Bay Tree Designs, Inc, is helping redevelop some 29 San Francisco schoolyards, to talk about how communities are transforming the asphalt playgrounds of the past into green spaces conducive to better learning, eating, and playing.
Q.How have playgrounds changed since we were kids?
A. Playgrounds these days are influenced largely by liability concerns. Swings are disappearing, bars are getting lower, structures are becoming less challenging. My 4-year-old recently broke her arm on a play structure meant for 2 to 5-year-olds because she found it so boring. She was walking on the outside of the bridge and sliding down the handrail and fell off. These structures are so unchallenging that kids are making up their own activities, which are often 10 times more dangerous.
Q.What's your vision of a better playground?
A. We want to give kids something more than play structures and ball games. We call them "ecological schoolyards," environments that combine diverse ecosystems with varied play environments and hands-on learning experiences. Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, says that playgrounds based on ballgames and athleticism are home to more bullying. In more natural environments, it's less about who's the strongest and the fastest and more about using the imagination. It changes the dynamic of who's in charge. And there's less conflict because the kids aren't as bored.
Q.How can kids learn from playgrounds?
A. You can embed a curriculum into the landscape by allowing students to see natural systems as they function. So instead of studying a watershed in a book, for example, they can see rainwater falling off their roof into a pond. Most students would shrug if you asked them when it last rained, but here they can run to the window and see how dry the pond looks.