Asphalt to Ecosystems

Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation

Foreword by Cam Collyer

  • Professional Award, American Society of Landscape Architects (2012)

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Asphalt to Ecosystems is a compelling color guidebook for designing and building natural schoolyard environments that enhance childhood learning and play experiences while providing connection with the natural world.

With this book, Danks broadens our notion of what a well-designed schoolyard should be, taking readers on a journey from traditional, ordinary grassy fields and asphalt, to explore the vibrant and growing movement to "green" school grounds in the United States and around the world. This book documents exciting green schoolyard examples from almost 150 schools in 11 countries, illustrating that a great many things are possible on school grounds when they are envisioned as outdoor classrooms for hands-on learning and play. The book's 500 vivid, color photographs showcase some of the world's most innovative green schoolyards including: edible gardens with fruit trees, vegetables, chickens, honey bees, and outdoor cooking facilities; wildlife habitats with prairie grasses and ponds, or forest and desert ecosystems; schoolyard watershed models, rainwater catchment systems and waste-water treatment wetlands; renewable energy systems that power landscape features, or the whole school; waste-as-a-resource projects that give new life to old materials in beautiful ways; K-12 curriculum connections for a wide range of disciplines from science and math to art and social studies; creative play opportunities that diversify school ground recreational options and encourage children to run, hop, skip, jump, balance, slide, and twirl, as well as explore the natural world first hand. The book grounds these examples in a practical framework that illustrates simple landscape design choices that all schools can use to make their schoolyards more comfortable, enjoyable and beautiful, and describes a participatory design process that schools can use to engage their school communities in transforming their own asphalt into ecosystems.

Sharon Gamson Danks is an environmental planner and founding partner of Bay Tree Design, inc. in Berkeley, California.


Title Asphalt to Ecosystems
Subtitle Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation
Foreword by Cam Collyer
Prize Professional Award, American Society of Landscape Architects (2012)
Publisher New Village Press
BISAC Subject Heading ARC000000 ARCHITECTURE
Audience 01 General / trade
Credit Sharon Gamson Danks
Title First Published 01 November 2010
Subject Scheme Identifier Code      93 Thema subject category: AM      93 Thema subject category: AK      93 Thema subject category: JN
Includes Index; Bibliography; Appendices


Foreword by Cam Collyer, Director, Evergreen Learning Grounds


Chapter 1: Why Transform Traditional Schoolyards?

Chapter 2: Project Launch: Designing Your Dream Schoolyard and Building the School Community to Make It Happen

Chapter 3: Design Guidelines for Ecological Schoolyards


Chapter 4: Schoolyard Wildlife Sanctuaries

Chapter 5: Schoolyard Water Systems

Chapter 6: School Energy Systems

Chapter 7: Schoolyard Agriculture

Chapter 8: Ecologically Sensitive Materials for Schoolyard Landscapes

Chapter 9: Lessons from the Landscape: Weaving Teaching Resources into Schoolyard Design


Chapter 10: "Active Play" in an Ecological Schoolyard

Chapter 11: Creative Play on School Grounds

Chapter 12: Outdoor Art and Music Play in an Ecological Schoolyard


Chapter 13: Comfortable Schoolyards: Seating, Microclimates, and Protection from the Elements

Chapter 14: Form and Function: Key Design Considerations for Well-Organized Green Schoolyards

Chapter 15: Artful Schoolyards: Creating a Unique Sense of Place through Art


Chapter 17: Ecological Schoolyards: From Grey to Green                                    

Resources to Help Transform Your "Asphalt into Ecosystems"

Referenced Works




About the Author

Additional Materials

Schoolyard Transformation

Rosa Parks School in Berkeley California. A case study by Sharon Danks from the book.
Schoolyard Transformation

Turning Nature Into Classrooms

Sharon Danks, a leader of the "Asphalt to Ecosystems" movement, discusses her work making playgrounds more eco-friendly (and child-friendly). Posted with permission from OnEarth Magazine ( and Erika Brekke.


A groundbreaking and informative book with examples from around the world that will inspire others to create green engaging environments for their children. To educate the next generation of earth stewards we need to immerse them in settings where an ecological viewpoint becomes second nature. Sharon Danks shows us the way.

American Society of Landscape Architects
Aug 28, 2012
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Professional Awards honor the top public places, residential designs, campuses, parks, and urban planning projects from across the US and around the world, with particular focus on the environmental sensitivity and sustainability of the projects. Asphalt to Ecosystems was awarded honors in the Communications category, which recognizes achievement in communicating landscape architecture works, technique, and theory. The ASLA 2012 Professional Awards Jury pronounced it "the most comprehensive and usable book. It's got great ideas that people can actually translate into practice."

- American Society of Landscape Architects

Go Green Radio
Mar 23, 2012
In Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation (New Village Press), author Sharon Danks broadens our notion of what a well-designed schoolyard should be, taking readers on a journey from traditional, ordinary grassy fields and asphalt, to explore what's being created in the growing movement toward "green" schoolgrounds in the United States and around the world. This book documents exciting examples from more than 150 schools in 11 countries, illustrating a vast range of possibilities in outdoor classrooms for learning and play. Easily the most practical how-to book of its kind, Asphalt to Ecosystems walks readers through the process of designing, funding, and creating an outdoor environment that stimulates learning and imagination for all children, regardless of their learning style.
- Hosted by Jill Buck, Go Green Radio

Children, Youth and Environments
"At the heart of the ecological schoolyard philosophy is the concept of raising children to become land stewards" (243). Sharon Danks has given us brilliantly illustrated examples of this philosophy in action in schoolyards around the world in her stunning book, Asphalt to Ecosystems. I cannot remember any book that has made me long so much to return to age seven, to magically enter a book's photographs and to try out the many natural, creative play and learning spaces that Danks documents. Her professional knowledge as an environmental planner working with school communities to design and build naturalized play and educational spaces makes this work a true tool for anyone wishing to inspire local schools to become places where school grounds reflect a living sustainability ethic.
- Illène Pevec, Children, Youth and Environments

Foreword Reviews
Nov 1, 2010
"One of the more dramatic shifts in modern childhood . . . is the loss of freedom," laments Cam Collyer in the foreword to this wondrous, book. Collyer tells of a survey in the UK that documented the area roamed by each generation within the same family as a child. The great-grandfather, in 1919, would walk “up to six miles away from his home,” while in 2007, “little Ed” was only allowed to the end of his block. “Wow,” says Collyer, quoting Richard Louv's description of modern childhood as “virtual house arrest.”

- Marlene Y. Satter, Foreword Reviews

Re:place Magazine
Dec 15, 2010
Asphalt to Ecosystems does a great job targeting its audience: teachers, students, and community activists. It is heavy on practical advice and detailed examples while being light on theory. Danks recognizes that some of the greatest challenges to such innovative playgrounds are liability legislation and a general fear of the unknown. Therefore, this book lays out a framework for change and supplements it with ample global examples. It is as much a call-to-action as an expose of works, and most definitely a wonderful addition to any elementary school library.
- Kevin J. Zhang, Re:place Magazine

Therapeutic Landscapes Network
This is the third year for TLN Blog book recommendations, and I have a couple of new ones to add to the list. The first is Sharon Danks' Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. Although this book is not so much geared to home gardeners, it's so inspiring that it deserves a place on this list. It's a beautifully illustrated guide for turning the traditional school ground’s slab of asphalt into edible gardens, wildlife habitats, and vibrant creative spaces.
- Naomi Sachs, Therapeutic Landscapes Network

Green Playgrounds Spring Up Around Bay Area - The Daily Californian
Feb 24, 2011
While elementary school students usually spend recess in yards with endless asphalt and harsh metal structures, children in any schoolyard designed by Berkeley-based environmental planner Sharon Danks instead play in blooming gardens, shaded ponds and nature trails.

"A green schoolyard ... allows the teachers to teach their classes outside, to provide play environment that is richer than the traditional one - that has creative play and active play balanced, and one that reflects local ecology in a number of ways," she said. "Around here, it usually means having less asphalt."
- Soumya Karlamangla, Green Playgrounds Spring Up Around Bay Area - The Daily Californian

Landscape Architecture Magazine
Jul 1, 2011
As I was reading this book I realized I wanted to buy boxes of it and send copies off to all officials involved in education at the national and state level—it is that good.
- Deborah Dalton, Landscape Architecture Magazine

ACL BayNews
Jun 1, 2012
Sharon Danks is a Bay Area resident, and served as planner for the San Francisco school district's green schoolyard program. She has a Masters' degree from UC Berkeley in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design, and works with schools to make them both environmentally and educationally solid with green schoolyards. Asphalt to Ecosystems is her guidebook to designing and building schoolyards that connect play and learning with the natural world. She has visited schools all over the world and includes more than 500 color photos from these schools, showing how playground design can offer space for learning.

- Penny Peck, ACL BayNews

Mar 25, 2011
Sarah Henry: Can you give some examples of model green schoolyards around the globe?

Sharon Danks: At the Coombes Primary School in England the children have woods to explore, a pond, and a fire pit in their play area, which is near a large patch of stinging nettles. On the day I visited, the children were making stinging nettle pasta on an outdoor stove. The only people who got stung were the adults. As the director points out: how will we raise capable, responsible humans if we don't present them with some risk in their environments?

Americans confuse safety and liability but these are not the same things.
- Sarah Henry, Berkeleyside

Dec 6, 2011
Danks sees the schoolyard as the perfect place to start engaging children with their environment. School gardens are an extension of the "school as a teaching tool," a microcosm for the potential that schools in general have to impart environmental awareness and stewardship on future leaders. Danks' book builds looks at the big picture for making a case for school gardens, but then moves into the practical with how to design, build and maintain school gardens on an ongoing basis.
- Bill Orr, CHPS Executive Director, CHPS

There is increasing recognition of the importance of school playgrounds as outdoor learning environments. Over the last ten years the author has visited over 200 school gardens around the world, and collected examples of playgrounds that have been transformed into environments designed to teach the principles of ecology and to reconnect children with nature. Illustrated with case studies from more than 150 schools, the studies are grounded in a framework of practical advice on how to involve the local community and also how to weave learning opportunities into the design that are suitably connected with the curriculum.

- Sarah Milliken, Garden Design Journal

Chicago Tribune
Oct 13, 2010
Danks encourages teachers to take their students on field trips to their own schoolyards and "make their own schoolyard landscape a really rich teaching environment that will connect to their own teaching curricula."

The idea is that a thoughtfully designed garden can be used for reading, story time, poetry, art or any other subject, she said, adding schoolyards are perfect settings for composting, learning about insects, and creating wildlife habitats, rainwater purification systems and solar-powered pump systems for ponds.

- Amanda Marrazzo, Chicago Tribune

FOSS Newsletter
Oct 1, 2011
Hands down, this is absolutely the most comprehensive book about greening schoolyards that I have seen, and I've seen most of them. The author's work involves photos from unbelievable green spaces from 11 countries around the world and spans a decade of research. If you have an inkling of desire to do some greening projects in a schoolyard or are looking for inspiration for yourself or others, this book provides all the information you need, along with saving you time and money. It is loaded with gorgeous photos of students working and learning outdoors in spaces that are now teeming with life but were once barren asphalt. The teacher in me focused on the many ways to organize seating outdoors. Some are simple seating arrangements using tree sections in a circle or various ways to have amphitheater seating. There are also photos of artful and functional cob bench sculptures or the dual functioning flower-shaped concrete raised tree bed that also provides seating.

- Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Newsletter

Nov 1, 2010
It's fair to say that when Sharon Danks' book Asphalt to ecosystems: design ideas for schoolyard transformation landed on our desks at LTL, there was a bit of a fight over who would borrow it first; we are big fans of Sharon's work.

And it's a delightful book; meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated with full-colour photographs, combining persuasive arguments for change with a clear, accessible, writing style. Sharon has travelled widely in Europe and the US and there are stories and pictures from over 150 schools in 11 countries - including the UK.

- Learning through Landscapes

Marinscope Community Newspaper
Nov 3, 2010
Who ever thought that schoolyards could be so much fun and enriching for everyone in the community? All it takes is ongoing community support and involvement at every stage of site-specific planning, funding, construction and maintenance. "Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation" is more than an idea book; it will help inspire and guide change.
- Jeanne Santangelo, Marinscope Community Newspaper

Wow! I wish this book had been around years ago when I first got involved with my local school's outdoor classroom. It offers ideas from 150 schools in 11 countries that have successfully changed uninspiring, outdoor 'dead space' into thriving, creative learning environments. It gives guidelines for building everything from wildlife sanctuaries and edible gardens to sustainable energy and water systems, and offers ideas for encouraging creative play and connecting curriculum. Great photos illustrate how children interact with the natural world, art and academics in the outdoor classroom.

- Anne Nagro, GardenABCs founder and author of kids' garden-based books, GardenABCs

Nov 18, 2010
The essential guidebook for communities who are concerned for the future of their children comes to us from our friends at New Village Press. "Asphalt to Ecosystems" by Sharon Danks provides designers, educators, parents and communities with useful information for transforming a school's uninviting, unimaginative hardscaped areas into healthy, positive learning environments.
- enVisionGreen

School Garden Weekly
Mar 9, 2011
The book's abundant illustrations and stories show readers how ecological schoolyards can improve students' classroom performance, increase self-esteem, better lifestyle practices, and instill in young students a much-needed sense of environmental stewardship.
- School Garden Weekly

Oct 13, 2011
I couldn't help but think that the program advocated here echo an older time. A time when children were taught about the world as they worked in it, as they experienced it with their family. Alas, now, how many times do we hear how little time families spend together? Now the schools we force our children into must be transformed to give them the experiences we as parents are not giving them. Parents should read this book. Schools should read this book. Maybe some of these ideas can be put to work at your own local school. Or, just maybe, some families could institute these or similar ideas at home. A yard, front or back, could benefit from the same changes promoted in the book for school grounds. Small gardens at home can be educational and even help a family move towards a self-sufficient status. So use this material wherever you can. Unleash some creativity.
- Gray Hunter, Therefore

The Midwest Book Review
Dec 10, 2010
"Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation" is a call for schoolyards to transform their unused grassland and asphalt yards into something more useful and educational.
- The Midwest Book Review
Sharon's book is highly unique and lovingly written. In addition to being well organized, it offers marvelous pictures that greatly add to this insightful and extremely useful guide. I highly recommend this book to anyone involved in improving our local schools and also those wanting to get involved.
- Doug Pushard,

Landscape Architecture Magazine
"We educate them on what green schoolyards are and the choices they have before them," says Danks. Bay Tree's presentation includes slides of what other schools have done around the world. The planners hope to inspire teachers on what could be taught outside, show how to incorporate ecological design into the mix and broaden play options, while making the yard a more comfortable space that's also beautiful.
- Joanne Furio, Landscape Architecture Magazine
Aug 22, 2011
Sharon Danks, author of Asphalt to Ecosystems – Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformations, shares a vision of creating outdoor learning spaces as places of beauty and inspiration for natural interactions. From her travels around the world documenting stellar examples of schoolyard greening and her experience as an Environmental Planner, Sharon provide ideas and resources for anyone interested in creating change on a school campus or outdoor community space. Her book highlights ecological teaching tools such as energy, water, and garden systems. Additionally she outlines how to plan for schoolyard transformation and includes hundreds of photos of "green" schoolyard design. Her emphasis on demonstrating ways to encourage outdoor play make this book useful for parents as well.

CLEARING: A Resource Journal of Environmental and Placed-Based Education
Feb 1, 2011
With this handbook to guide the planning, design, and implementation process, educators, parents, students, designers, and environmental activists will see the potential for redesigning under-utilized schoolyard spaces to cultivate richer learning and play experiences.
- CLEARING: A Resource Journal of Environmental and Placed-Based Education

Building a Better Playground
May 18, 2011
Shanti Menon: Can the schoolyard help replace the nature that's vanishing from most of our lives?

Sharon Danks: I read an article that chronicled how far each generation of kids in a single family ventured from their home to play. As an 8-year-old, the grandfather roamed four to six miles to go fishing. The father wandered about two miles from home, and the son about half a mile. Our kids are lucky if they walk to the end of the block. In many cases, school grounds are their only exposure to outdoor play, and if all they have is asphalt and some liability-engineered version of climbing, I'd say they're missing out.
- Shanti Menon, Building a Better Playground

Connect Magazine
Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, by Sharon Gamson Danks, is an outstanding resource that considers multiple views of outdoor school spaces: learning, safety, fun, habitat, and sustainability. The book shares examples from more than 150 schools in 11 countries. There is great advice here and lots of inspiration.
- Connect Magazine

Ecological Landscape Association
Aug 16, 2011
The transformation of our nation's asphalt and turf schoolyards into thriving educational and inspirational Green Space sounds like the ultimate "kumbaya" notion. A notion that one might assume would surely suffocate under mountains of red tape. Asphalt to Ecosystems proves that this idea is more than a fuzzy feeling and can become a tangible reality.
- Trevor Smith, Ecological Landscape Association

Jul 1, 2011
This book is an important addition to the growing body of literature on green schoolyard transformation, and is a must-have for school district libraries as well as an asset for all schools.
- Green Teacher Magazine

Sustainable Communities Online
The book is filled with examples that show that many things are possible on school sites, and supports that idea with approximately 500 colorful photographs from roughly 150 schools in 11 countries. The book is fully indexed and includes an extensive resource section and bibliography.
- Sustainable Communities Online

City Farmer News
Asphalt to Ecosystems is a compelling color guidebook for designing and building natural schoolyard environments that enhance childhood learning and play experiences while providing connection with the natural world.
- Michael Levenston, City Farmer News
The Naturalist Center of the California Academy of Sciences has announced Asphalt to Ecosystems as a new addition to it's library. The Naturalist Center names it as a great choice for teachers and parents. For more information, please click here

Energy Seeds
Jan 18, 2011
Glen Kizer: Since schools have classrooms, why do you feel it is necessary or important to make the schoolyard part of the curriculum? Aren't schoolyards for play and classrooms for education?

Sharon Gamson Danks: Schoolyards are indeed places for play and indoor classrooms have been the usual learning environment for many years—but many schools are now seeing that their grounds can be useful to them in other ways, allowing them to do much more than simply toss a ball at recess.

- Glen Kizer, Energy Seeds

I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! The emergency exit to outdoor learning...
Juliet Robertson: What is "Asphalt to Ecosystems" about?

Sharon Danks: When you think about "school grounds," what type of image first comes to mind? For many people, school grounds are places covered by paved surfaces and uniform sports fields, adorned with a few nondescript shrubs and trees, and one or two ordinary climbing structures purchased from a catalog. Most school grounds in a given city or region look like all of the others, with very little variation to reflect unique aspects of each school community, the neighborhood's environmental context, or the teachers' preferred curricula and teaching methods.

- Juliet Robertson, I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! The emergency exit to outdoor learning...

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