Why schoolyards are a critical space for teaching about — and fighting — extreme heat and climate change

This story was produced by KQED MindShift and republished with permission.

On hot days, fourth-grader Adriana Salas has observed that when the sun beats down on the pavement in her schoolyard it “turns foggy.” There are also days where the slide burns the back of her legs if she is wearing shorts or the monkey bars are too hot to touch. Salas, who attends Roosevelt Elementary School in San Leandro, California, is not alone in feeling the effects of heat on her schoolyard. Across the country, climbing temperatures have led schools to cancel classes and outdoor activities to protect students from the harmful effects of the heat.

Jenny Seydel, an environmental educator and founder of Green Schools National Network, encourages teachers to leverage students’ observations about their schools to make learning come alive. According to Seydel, when teachers use the school grounds as a way to learn about social issues, they’re using their school as a three-dimensional textbook. For example, schools’ energy and water conservation, architecture and lunches are rich with potential for project-based learning. “We can learn from a textbook. We can memorize concepts. We can use formulas, but we don’t incorporate that learning until it is real,” said Seydel.

Against the backdrop of climate change, Roosevelt Elementary School teachers turned to their schoolyards as a way to apply lessons about rising temperatures to the real world. While these issues can seem overwhelming to young students, exploring them within the context of their school can not only make lessons stick, but also encourage students’ sense of civic agency. 

Related: This California high school includes sustainability and green jobs in its curriculum

Armed with infrared thermometers and a map of their school, fourth graders at Roosevelt embarked on the “How cool is your school?” project created by Green Schoolyards America, an organization that works to transform asphalt-laden schoolyards into greener spaces. The guiding questions for the fourth graders were:

  • Is our school a comfortable place for children and adults when the weather is warm?
  • How can our school community take action to shade and protect students from rising temperatures due to climate change? 

In groups of three, students of Dorie Heinz and Nicole Lamm classes measured and recorded the ground temperature at 25 locations around their school. As students gathered data from places like the tetherball courts, lunch area, and parking lot, a pattern emerged: materials matter. For example, one group found that the ground temperature they recorded at the main playground, which was made of rubber safety material, was almost 50 degrees hotter than the temperature they measured at their school’s grass playing field. 

“Our school districts are one of the largest land managers,” Lamm explained to students. “Most schools are covered in asphalt and other materials that heat up in the sun, and schools generally have a lack of shade.”

According to preliminary research by Green Schoolyards America, over two million students in California attend schools with less than 5 percent tree canopy. Less tree coverage contributes to urban heat island effect, which is when heat-absorbing materials like asphalt or tar result in higher temperatures in a community. Students’ firsthand observations provided a tangible link between their immediate surroundings and issues outside of their school. 

Related: COLUMN: Is A/C the new ABC? As the country gets hotter, schools need upgrades

When the students returned from gathering data, they shared their findings as a class. When students presented the temperatures they measured, Lamm recorded it on a poster-sized map of the school with color coded stickers. Blue stickers represented the lowest temperatures, which were below 70 degrees fahrenheit, while red stickers represented temperatures above 100 degrees fahrenheit. Shades of yellow and orange stickers indicated temperatures in between.  

Looking at the map, students pointed out the greater volume of red stickers, compared with blue ones. “It’s mostly hot where we’re playing,” said Adriana. The two lonely blue stickers were in areas with a large tree and a shade structure, respectively. 

Lamm and Heinz prompted students to brainstorm how to make the playground cooler. “We want to mark our map with triangles to show where we think we should plant more trees and squares for where we think we need shade structures,” said Heinz. One student offered an idea to protect their schools’ youngest students. “There’s this little concrete box. I was thinking maybe we could plant a tree because sometimes I would notice kindergartners eating a snack there,” he said. By the end of the activity, the map was covered in colored dots. Triangle and square-shaped stickers – students’ proposals for shade – were next to some of the hottest areas. The teachers posted the map with all of its stickers in front of the school to show their findings to parents and community members. 

Related: COLUMN: How student school board members are driving climate action

Tackling larger issues at the school level can nurture problem-solving skills that extend beyond academic subjects and prepare students for the complexities of the larger world. “It’s really depressing for a lot of kids to read about all the negative things that climate change has created in the world,” said Sharon Danks, CEO and founder of Green Schoolyards America — the organization that created the “How Cool is Your School” activity. In offering this hands-on STEM lesson plan to schools, Danks and her team hope that administrators implement students’ suggestions and create green schoolyards. “It gives kids a chance to learn about climate change, but also learn about being positive forces for change for the better,” she said.

While green schoolyards can vary widely because they reflect the surrounding ecosystem and climate, they may include features such as edible gardens, stormwater capture features or walking trails. Danks described a green schoolyard as “an ecologically rich park and a place that has all kinds of things happening and all types of different social niches for people to be doing different activities in different places and in a natural environment filled with plants and living things.” 

“We can learn from a textbook. We can memorize concepts. We can use formulas, but we don’t incorporate that learning until it is real.”

Jake Seydel, an environmental educator and founder of Green Schools National Network

Green schoolyards offer protection against the heat and provide a unique setting for interdisciplinary learning experiences, according to Priya Cook from Children & Nature Network, an organization that works to ensure kids have equitable access to green spaces. She adds that benefits associated with outdoor learning, such as improved behavioral control and increased student engagement, “impact the way a kid can thrive in the classroom.” When students have access to a green schoolyard, their physical activity increases, and studies have shown that being in natural spaces improves mentalhealth and wellbeing.

While green schoolyards boast a lot of benefits, not every school can easily make the transformation. Danks cited failures to pass bills supporting greening projects and a shortage of funds as the most significant obstacles. Removing asphalt is costly. And because green space is inequitably distributed, schools with the most asphalt are also likely to be schools with the least financial resources. However, California has allocated $150 million for green schoolyards, and other states may follow suit.

As one of the most heavily trafficked public spaces, green schoolyards could have an outsized effect. “There’s a reframing that needs to happen in our budget, in our mindset, that says this is a crucial space for children,” said Danks.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

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