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, environmental planner and founding partner of Bay Tree Design, Inc. in Berkeley, California, has visited and documented over 175 green schoolyards in North America, Europe and Japan, and has shaped and facilitated the master planning process for dozens of ecological schoolyards.
Asphalt to Ecosystems was honored with an American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Professional Award in 2012.
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 (OnEarth.org) and Erika Brekke.
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.
"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.”
Readers might wonder what this has to do with green schoolyards, but the answer is everything, as the author points out. Children no longer allowed to roam through meadows and woodlands, fields and farms have no connection with nature, and further, have no idea where food comes from. The book cites additional alarming statistics: 35 percent of children eat no fruit, and 20 percent don’t eat vegetables. For most of the kids who do eat vegetables, French fries are the mainstay. Danks, who is an environmental planner by profession, has put together an extraordinary guide to creating, or re-creating, a portion of the natural world to teach children all those connections that used to be a natural part of growing up.
Self-generated and passive power sources, beekeeping, vegetable gardening, outdoor cooking, and art classes—for all of these things, Danks provides insights and photos to show how it’s done. Anyone can advocate within a school community to replace sterile and uncomfortable paved play areas with amazing, comfortable spaces furnished with ponds, willow-whip teepees, storytelling areas, and solar ovens. In other words, play areas can be places to stimulate the imagination, rekindle the connection with nature, and address ecological concerns all at the same time.
The book itself is lovely, with good quality paper stock, a plethora of plans, and hundreds of photos; if there is one request, it is for more consistent inclusion of garden locations or the purposes of equipment in photo captions. The writing is clear and impassioned, and the advice practical: Danks stresses, for instance, that school gardens should never be “finished,” and points out that natural things will wear out or need to be replaced periodically so that funding should be allocated appropriately.
Parents, teachers, school administrators, and community planners will all find this book both helpful and revealing; children will find the results magical.
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.
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.
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.
From the traditional blacktop and grass fields of most schoolyards, the book describes how playgrounds transform into spaces for growing food and plants, allowing for wildlife, birds and insects, and offering equipment that encourages creativity and collaborative play. The old design only encouraged competition, which often deviated into bullying, but the new design facilitates role-playing, storytelling, and stewardship of the land. She addresses risk assessment so that the new models for schools avoid hazards while still allowing for water features, entertaining playground equipment, and plenty of trees and greenery.
One of the most effective aspects of the book is the "before and after" photos, showing a stark urban blacktop that was transformed into a beautiful park-like setting. These changes encourage a wide variety of games and play as well as the traditional sports seen on old fashioned playgrounds. These new schoolyards also allow for many more teaching opportunities, especially in the sciences.
Danks stresses that the design of a schoolyard or public space benefits from participation by the children - allowing them to have input on the design creates ownership. These schoolyards often raise property values, and vandals are hesitant to intrude because they know the kids are enjoying the spaces. Often parents are motivated to volunteer to help maintain these spaces.
The recent ACL Institute on food justice discussed the edible schoolyard program; this book compliments that effort with additional changes to the schoolyard that have a similar value in showing children how they can interact with the environment. This is a great book to offer to teachers, administrators, and school board members. Libraries planning renovations can easily adapt some of the design ideas to make their outdoor spaces more pleasant and potential sites for library programming.
Readers will find this both a "how to" on adapting a traditional schoolyard into a green learning environment, and find lists of resources at the back of the book for more information.
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
Asphalt to Ecosystems
Garden Design Journal
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.
Key considerations include the provision of suitable seating and protection from the elements; walls and fences to define boundaries; and pathways to direct movement through the site. There is also a chapter on ecologically sensitive building materials.
With over 500 colour photos, a useful bibliography and list of internet resources, I will want to reach for this book time and again.
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.
"Green" playgrounds can also include edible gardens, which can be used for teaching both science and nutrition. Placing large boulders around a campus can teach about geology as well as provide objects to play and sit on. Students can plant orchards, build outdoor puppet theaters and ovens, even raise chickens, Danks said.
"It's not about removing all the ballgames," she said. "It is trying to create balance by adding diversity to the schoolyard."
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.
The book is brimming with integrated art projects that range from tile mosaics, painted asphalt, to willow sculptures. Often the art is functional and beautiful. These outdoor spaces are welcoming, provide ownership when created by students and parents, build community, and, of course, invite active learning right outside the classroom door. Concluding the book, Sharon Gamson Danks writes, "The examples in this book are intended to help you envision what is best for your school, to help you avoid 'reinventing the wheel.' Use this book as a springboard to develop your own ideas or tailor those you have read about to reflect your own school community and its geographic location. Dream of the schoolyard you would like to achieve and then help to shape this reality at your school." Asphalt to Ecosystems provides a wealth of information about how to create effective and beautiful spaces while simultaneously truly inspiring everyone to get out there and start building. Looking at the pictures of this book makes me want to get over to my kids' schoolyards and start working—and as a full-time working mother, that's saying something.
- Erica Beck Spencer
Asphalt to Ecosystems
Learning through Landscapes
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.
Those of you who attended LTL's international conference this summer will recall hearing Sharon talk passionately about her work in San Francisco and across the UK; many of the stunning images she showed are reproduced here, including a selection of 'before' and 'after' pictures that will amaze - can these really be the same schools? Yes - they are, and alongside the motivational pictures are case studies that explain the rationale and the processes behind the changes.
Carefully chosen images also illustrate Sharon's points about simple, effective interventions. For those schools aiming higher, there are inspirational examples of schools keeping animals, renewable energy programmes, managing play spaces with running water and offering urban learners spaces that begin to replicate natural, wild environments that they may never visit for real.
We would recommend this book to any school - primary and secondary - or PTA with an interest in taking learning outdoors, becoming 'greener' or providing richer play experiences. It's also an invaluable text for designers and planners, offering guidance on materials, planting and sustainability, based on real-life, successful examples in a wide range of different school contexts.
The easiest way to get a copy is via http://newvillagepress.net or other online retailers. Don't let the fact that it's an American edition put you off - if you are interested in broadening your curriculum outdoors or becoming a more sustainable school community, you'll find inspiration and practical help here.
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.
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.
This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to transform -- or continue transforming -- their schoolyard, park or outdoor community space. It will cause you to look at your children's or student's play space with brand new eyes... and that's a very good thing. Every school administrator and park official should have a copy of this inspiring manual on her desk.
- Anne Nagro, GardenABCs founder and author of kids' garden-based books
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Asphalt to Ecosystems
Green Teacher Magazine
Jul 1, 2011
This book is an important edition 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.
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.
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
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.
—Clare Cooper Marcus, Professor Emerita, Departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of California, Berkeley. Co-author, Healing Gardens
I have often seen children's sense of wonder awaken as they find life teeming in a handful of soil or nurture a seed into a healthy plant to be harvested and enjoyed in a delicious meal with their classmates. Sharon Danks' Asphalt to Ecosystems is a wonderful introduction to the design ideas that can transform a traditional schoolyard into a place where such vital learning can occur, under the wise and skillful guidance of the growing movement of educators dedicated to education for sustainable living.
—Zenobia Barlow, Cofounder and Executive Director, The Center for Ecoliteracy
Asphalt to Ecosystems reflects the author's passion for the topic and presents more than a decade of innovative practice interwoven with extensive international field investigation. The carefully crafted text, profusely illustrated with closely observed examples, convincingly demonstrates how ecologically rich environments can serve the triumvirate of children's play, learning, and education—and the good health of both children and planet. This inspiring book brings together and builds on the work of long time pioneers who share author Sharon Danks' vision. Those pursuing the same mission are offered an exceptionally valuable tool and a new benchmark of design for educating a new eco-literate generation.
—Robin Moore, MCP, Director, The Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University. Co-author, Natural Learning: The Life History of an Environmental Schoolyard
Danks' book exemplifies planning's comprehensive approach to design and community engagement. She demonstrates that sustainability goes well beyond green technologies—encompassing the patterns of place and envisioning schools and schoolyards as centers of community.
—Jeffrey L. Soule, FAICP, Director of Outreach and International Programs, American Planning Association
Asphalt to Ecosystems is an inspiring, important, and practical resource. Grounded in experience and loaded with photographs to illustrate the concepts, this book is an invaluable tool for all of us who are working to reconnect children and nature where they live, learn and play.
—Cheryl Charles, Co-Founder and President, Children & Nature Network. Co-author, Coming Home: Community, Creativity, and Consciousness.
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."
"This inspiring, comprehensive book about the vibrant, international green schoolyard movement is a call to action to improve children’s school environments for learning, play, and ecology, and a celebration of 150 successful examples around the world. Compiled from the author’s decade of research and experience, the book speaks to both design professionals and community members, and brims with design ideas, practical tips, and strategies for engaging school communities as stewards of their shared public space."
The September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine featuring the award winners will be available in stores as of September 14 and can also be found online.
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."
Green Playgrounds Spring Up Around Bay Area -Soumya Karlamangla Feb 24, 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?
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.
Building a Better Playground -Shanti Menon May 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.
Schoolyards can also be fantastic places for messy art studios, outdoor music and drama performances, hands-on science and math lessons, language and social studies, geography and geology lessons, nutrition education, and other topics. Many schools also develop outdoor classroom spaces of various sizes so that teachers can use their enhanced grounds as effective teaching spaces.
At the preschool and elementary school levels, these enriched, naturalized spaces also provide wonderful, open-ended, imaginative play venues where children can dream up their own games among flowers, trees, and boulders, choose to play sports, or climb and swing, as they like. At all grade levels, green schoolyards can also provide comfortable environments with shade, clustered seating to encourage social gatherings, student artwork, and welcoming signage.
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.
At the same time, children's domain—the areas they can roam on their own outside of school—have been shrinking over the last few generations, leaving many children with only the schoolyard to explore to discover how the world works. If what we are providing them is limited and bland, how will they develop their curiosity, their sense of adventure, and a well-rounded world view?
A movement is growing around the world to give our children a richer environment at school—to provide places for teachers to teach their lessons in a hands-on manner outside; places for children to explore a corner of the natural world to see how it functions; and places to run, hop, skip, jump, twirl and play in active, challenging, and creative ways.
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.