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Green Schoolyards : healthy, alive, connected.

Lets take back our schoolyards! Good bye asphalt. Hello small group, place based, open air, healthier, learning spaces that build community.

Photo of Michelle Mathis
3 16

Written by

I am a.....

  • Visionary Landscape Architect

Tell us about your idea

Imagine a lush, green, productive landscape surrounding each of our schools where students work in small groups performing hands-on learning in open air classrooms. If we return to school with the need for smaller class sizes and fears of virus transition, let's set the children free outdoors. Once surrounded by asphalt and lawn our schoolyards will be transformed to gardens, carbon sinks, stormwater systems, and laboratories for testing and experimentation. Students can gather under living willow domes, shady groves with stump seats, or small group STEM stations separated by productive planting. We let nature's humidity, air flow, sunlight, and temperature reduce the virus spread. While students are engaged in small group, meaningful, exciting projects that improve their communities. 

What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

The four walls. They limit our bodies and confine our minds. They separate us from the community and the environment. Let the school trickle out into the landscape. Learning can be messier, louder, more child driven, less prescribed and more fun. While offering more distance and less opportunity for transmission.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

I am a landscape architect and founder of Learning Landscapes Design. Our design firm uses a sustainability lens to re-imagine outdoor spaces for learning and play. Our kids deserve better and we work daily to help communities and organizations across the US realize their visions for outdoor spaces that engage whole communities and create whole children. 

What region are you located in?

  • North America

Where are you located?

Portland, OR is an overgrown town on the west coast of the US where chickens full our neighborhoods and our gardens spill from the yard into the street.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Alex Arcos

Hello Michelle :)
Thanks for sharing.

Have you implemented this idea into a public space like pocket, linear, neighborhood parks? or even indoor spaces? And how that could be escaleted?
I´m imagining like a kind of DIY manual of differents "elements" that can be builded or ensambled, for example the "tree dome", benches, etc.

Photo of Michelle Mathis

Thanks for your comment. We have installed these in public parks and places like zoos and children's museums. But, at a large scale they take a lot of planning and upfront design. I appreciate your question about quick install and turn around.

I think a mix of seating, work spaces, fencing if needed and loose parts is the way to get things done quickly. We have loose parts kits that we supply to facilities that want to have STEM play spaces and child led free play zones. You can check them out here These kits can be shipped to a site and just opened to start play.

My experience with DIY in our schools is that it ends up being more work then the 'volunteer(s)' wanted to take on. Everything looks easy in the beginning but takes more time and money then expected. But with the right leadership and guidance I think a strong volunteer team could install many items on the schoolyard. We have DIY instruction for a few dozen items like nature kitchens, dry creek beds, bug hotels, etc.

I would love to hear more about what you are working on.

Photo of Alex Arcos

That´s great Michelle,

I'm colaborating (as a volunteer) in Impulso Urbano ( is an organization of the Architecture School from Tec de Monterrey (Is a university). We beging our process in the Design Courses, where the students build a 1:1 prototype , then we select the project who has the highiest probabilty of successs to be builded and finally with other group of volunterr students (majorie form Architecture or Civil Engenier) we build the proyect.

Is more "complex" than that �� but in general terms is how Impulso Urbano works.

Would be great if you can share some of that DIY instruction.

Best regards