Living Schoolyards for Children's Wellbeing: "How Cool is Your Schoolyard?"

What if every school encouraged children to study and shape their own schoolyard to improve their health, learning, play and local ecology?

Photo of Sharon Danks
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

School districts are one of the largest land managers in every city across the USA and the globe, and schools occupy the geographic and social heart of almost every neighborhood. In California alone, over 10,000 public schools serve more than 6,000,000 students on approx. 125,000 acres. Much of this land is empty and paved and lacks shade and vegetation—particularly in low-income areas. Choices school districts make about how they manage their grounds profoundly impacts their city and generations of kids whose perspectives are shaped through daily outdoor experiences at school. Green Schoolyards America (GSA) sees barren schoolyards as an untapped resource. We are inspired by the opportunity to simultaneously improve children’s wellbeing and the health of urban ecological systems, by enriching public spaces our youth visit every day. Our programs are designed to build the “living schoolyard” movement which brings nature back to cities by transforming barren asphalt and ordinary grass into vibrant places for health, learning and play, set within the context of rich, local ecosystems that nurture wildlife and the natural processes that sustain us. Living schoolyards foster children’s social, physical, and intellectual growth and wellbeing by providing settings for curiosity, empathy, imagination, exploration, adventure and wonder. They allow kids to see their environment in a new way, and provide a place to collaborate to realize a shared vision and become changemakers.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

California: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Oakland, Petaluma, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Geronimo, Union City Illinois: Chicago Indiana: Indianapolis Wisconsin: Madison

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Living schoolyards address interrelated problems: under-investment in kids; under-used public space (schoolyards); and degraded urban ecological systems. By enriching school grounds, we can: improve children’s mental and physical wellbeing while providing hands-on teaching resources; engage kids and adults in transforming their shared public spaces into vibrant places for communities to enjoy; and restore thriving ecosystems and healthy watersheds while mitigating climate change. “How cool is your schoolyard?” engages kids in citizen science to measure surface temperatures on their grounds. Kids will document high temperatures on unshaded paved schoolyards and contrast this with cooler surfaces under nearby shade trees. We hope this data, when collected widely, will help us make the case for living schoolyards and increase investment in them so climate and children will both benefit.

Children who help develop their school grounds are changemakers. Living schoolyards are most often created through "barn-raising"-like processes, where students, parents, teachers, principals, school district administrators and other school community members collaborate to envision a better outdoor environment on their school grounds, and then work together to make it a reality. When Green Schoolyards America works with school districts, children play a key role in the process to re-shape their grounds.

We consider students to be experts on their own schoolyard environments, and work with them to identify what's working well on their grounds and which areas need improvement. This process involves research, communication and consensus building as students work together with their peers and adults to identify and accomplish a shared vision. This type of participatory process builds confidence and leadership skills for both students and adults, as well as empathy for each other and for the living plants and animals onsite. The Living Schoolyards that result from this type of design process promote mental and physical health and social and emotional wellbeing, while creating great places to learn, play and nurture neighborhood nature.

Our "How cool is your schoolyard" project adds another layer of research and analysis to the work we have done in the past. It allows students to participate in citizen science to understand how the materials we choose for our urban environment (in this case, school grounds) change the temperatures in our cities. As they find hot spots in their playground, they can also identify solutions to make those places more comfortable. This type of problem and solution are on a scale that students can understand and be proud of--helping them to see that they can be changemakers throughout their lives. 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

My work engages multiple sectors: education, health, play, green urban infrastructure, ecology, etc.

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

School ground materials—and presence or absence of shade—greatly affect the temperature and comfort of schoolyards, particularly on warm sunny days. GSA is concerned that some temps. are too high for kids and that the lack of shade is a health concern. Hot temps. are also a problem for our urban climate, which is warming. In our initial measurements at a school in Oakland, CA we recorded surface temps. on a 65°F day ranging from 55°F in the shade under a tree, to 145°F on an unshaded rubber “safety” mat! We will work with our partner schools in the Bay Area and LA to engage kids in measuring schoolyard temps. and cooling hot spots they find. We will work with our medical community partners to understand the data from a health perspective.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

GSA’s work includes research, collaboration w/ school districts and public agencies, professional development for principals, public outreach and state policy work. Our schoolyard temperature study developed this spring, will be implemented this fall. (Impact will follow.) Impact of our other projects in 2016: - GSA Principals’ Institute: 20 principals engaged in green schoolyard professional development. (They lead PreK-8th schools w/ a total of 6,500 kids.) - Produced 3 interrelated, free publications w/ a total of 147 ideas for using school grounds, from 123 collaborating organizations in 17 countries. Downloaded 1,500 times in 1st 8 weeks. - Collaborated w/ 6 public agencies (water, waste, health, education), 5 school districts, 1 national park - Gave 14 public presentations to 1,100 people since 1/1/16. (13,000 people over 10 years) We expect our impact to keep growing!

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $50k - $100k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We received a small grant to start a cost-benefit study of green schoolyards. The temperature study is related. We are now seeking funds to support our time to work with kids to collect temperature data. If high temps. are documented, and are of concern to our health colleagues, we will seek funding from climate change mitigation sources to help the schools cool their grounds. We will use participatory design with kids to find hot spot solutions.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Most school ground organizations focus only on environmental education or school gardens. We work with a wider lens to convene collaborators from many professional sectors to solve interdisciplinary problems facing children’s wellbeing and environmental quality, and look for systemic solutions to improve watersheds and climate and kids' learning & play spaces at the same time. I think our schoolyard temperature measurement project is unique. We will be working on it in California and our colleagues in Sweden and Japan are excited by our idea and will join us in this work in the coming year.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

I’ve been working on Living Schoolyards for the last 17 years and have visited 300 schools in 12 countries to deepen my understanding of the field. The green schoolyard movement is at an important moment. It is possible now to scale up and work across entire cities, rather than one school at a time, and to engage larger partners in a wider range of fields, such as health. This will allow us to provide many more children with environments that foster mental and physical wellbeing, empathy, and social emotional learning while we also improve the ecology of our cities at a bigger scale.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Other

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Ashoka staff member: Hannah Borowsky

Program Design Clarity

Our model to create living schoolyards is relevant to any type of school, but we particularly aim to help urban public schools serving low-income kids ages 3-13, since their grounds are usually asphalt deserts. This temperature measurement study is coordinated with our partners (school principals) and implemented by GSA staff, the schools’ teachers and their students. To date GSA has taken baseline measurements to establish our data protocols at 2 schools in CA and 2 schools in IL. This year we will expand to 20+ schools in CA and engage 10+ schools in Sweden and Japan, working w/colleagues.

Community Leadership

Measuring playground temperatures w/children shows them, and their school communities, how the materials we use to build our urban environment affects their school ground microclimate. With this knowledge in hand, they can advocate for tree planting and shade to cool their grounds. GSA will also aggregate the data from all schools in this study so we can seek wider policy shifts to support school ground cooling, to benefit kids and urban climate.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

GSA’s overall goal is to expand the living schoolyard movement so all kids can access healthy, nature-rich environments every day at school. To do this, we are seeking policy shifts at local, state and national levels. This temperature study helps us make the case for climate change mitigation-related policy. We will expand to schools across the US and other countries (with local partners) for wider impact and to make our data more comprehensive.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Involving kids in hands-on data collection and analysis helps them to become changemakers for their school environment. Participating in this citizen-science project will give kids site-specific data to make the case to adults to improve their immediate microclimate for better health and comfort. This project is at a scale that kids understand, and the changes will be visible, positive results that build their confidence and leadership skills.

Leadership Story

For the last 17 years, my work to improve cities for children and nature has focused on collective impact efforts. I specialize in bringing people together to tackle projects too big for one person or organization to handle alone. I co-founded International School Grounds Alliance to engage global partners in collaborative work on children’s behalf. With Green Schoolyards America in the US, I convene public schools, public agencies and other colleagues to advance these ideas together. Our temp study will include ISGA / GSA partners, and kids will experience the power of working together, too.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

“How cool is your schoolyard” is part of wider research GSA is doing w/partners to establish baseline metrics for school grounds. We won a grant after a competitive live pitch, from USGBC/CHPS. Sharon Danks (CEO) became an Ashoka Affiliate in 2015. Her schoolyard book won an award from ASLA in 2012.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Andre Wicks

Sharon,  I'm meeting with our directors of nutrition services either by the end of this week or during the week of August 8.  I would love to include to sneak peak of insight I have from your idea with them.  I've been trying to promote gardens and green houses in our district for some time now to both compliment the movement toward scratch cooking and to address food insecurity issues in the community.  Ideally, it would be great to get you on the phone with us so we can listen to your story first hand.  Please let me know if you're interested.  Thank you!

Andre Wicks 

Photo of Sharon Danks

Hi Andre,

Sure, I'd be happy to have a phone conversation with you and your colleagues. It sounds like you are working on a very interesting idea and I'd love to hear more. Let's coordinate the meeting time by email. My address is  This week is a good time for me.  

I'm looking forward to talking with you soon.

Best wishes, Sharon

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