By Rochelle Davis, President and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign, and Jaime Zaplatosch, Vice President of Education and Community Engagement for Openlands


What once was a sea of crumbling asphalt and broken benches at Chicago’s Morrill Elementary School on the city’s southwest side is now an oasis. At every hour of the day and every day of the week, the schoolyard outside Morrill is teeming with activity: kids playing soccer, teens playing basketball, and the community coming together.


Morrill is situated in Chicago Lawn on Chicago’s southwest side—a neighborhood that has long struggled with gang activity. Parents talked about locking their kids’ bikes up in their basements and only taking them out to pack them into the car and driving six miles away to Hyde Park to ride them. The neighborhood has also struggled with flooding due to Chicago’s overtaxed sewer system and heavy rains that often flood streets, parking lots, basements, and schoolyards.

Photo | Space to Grow

Photo | Space to Grow

However, much of that changed with Morrill’s schoolyard transformation, thanks to the Space to Grow program.


Morrill was selected as one of the first four schools to receive a $1.5 million schoolyard transformation through Space to Grow, an innovative public-private partnership co-managed by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands.  Space to Grow transforms Chicago schoolyards into centers of school and community life that support active and healthy lifestyles, outdoor learning, physical education, and engagement with nature. The program receives capital funding and support from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Together, these partners are working to build 34 schoolyards by 2019.


Space to Grow is an example of what can be accomplished for our communities when multiple partners work together. Instead of looking at the problem of flooding in Chicago neighborhoods as a single issue to be addressed by one organization or agency, this program embraced the challenge by using dynamic solutions that created multiple benefits for students, neighborhoods, and infrastructure in our city.

Creating a New Schoolyard

In the spring of 2013, Morrill’s school community started a months-long planning process in partnership with graduate students at the University of Colorado Denver’s Landscape Architecture program. During this series of meetings, teachers, school staff, parents, students, and community members provided a vision and concept design for their schoolyard. After several months, the Chicago Public Schools facilities team and contractors integrated this vision and concept design into their construction process.


One challenge that the school had to overcome during the visioning and planning process was the concern of many community members that a tall fence was needed to prevent the new schoolyard from being taken over by gangs. The principal at the time, Mike Beyer, and partners worked with the community on the idea of “positive loitering.” Positive loitering is the presence of community members engaged in positive activities, deterring negative ones. “We said to those concerned, ‘We could do that, however it would be better if it was open to the community,” Beyer said. “Some of the negative elements will find their way in. We can either get rid of those negative elements or turn them around.’”


Ground broke at Morrill in July 2014, and the new schoolyard premiered in October of that same year. The schoolyard has a multiple use turf field, basketball courts, three distinct play areas, three different gardens, and outdoor classrooms. The new Morrill schoolyard can be used simultaneously by multiple classes for learning, athletics, and play while addressing flooding issues through the use of green stormwater infrastructure (e.g., rain gardens and other natural elements).


Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands will work with Morrill’s staff, parents, and community members for years after the schoolyard’s transformation so that they have the knowledge and skills to take care of and fully use these new assets. This support includes workshops, stewardship events, and integrating health and wellness into the school culture.


At garden planning workshops, the school garden team comes together to talk about goals for their vegetable gardens and to pick what the team will grow over the next couple of seasons. Community workshops bring together neighbors to learn about how the Space to Grow schoolyards are helping to prevent local flooding, as well as simple things they can do at home—like plant native gardens or install rain barrels—to help keep water out of their basements. Several garden days are held throughout the year to get the whole community involved in caring for the green spaces in the schoolyard.


Engaging the community in upkeep efforts is essential to the Space to Grow model. That engagement means community members are true owners of their new schoolyards.

Impacting the Health of the Community

Morrill participated in a small, longitudinal pilot study with the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) to measure the impact of Space to Grow schoolyard redesigns on students’ physical activity and the community’s social cohesion.


Data collected from accelerometers used to measure students’ physical activity before and after the schoolyard redesign showed notable increases in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) during the week with statistically significant increases among boys (from 20.3 minutes to 49.6 minutes). The trend among girls was also positive (from 22.8 minutes to 28.1 minutes), though not statistically significant due to sample size.


The evaluation included three grade levels (first, fourth, and seventh grades) and students in all three grades showed increased activity. Statistically significant increases were evident among the first graders (19.5 minutes to 27.8 minutes) and seventh graders (7.8 minutes to 27.9 minutes). MVPA also increased among fourth graders from 31.7 minutes to 39.2 minutes.


Community response has also been positive. Notable trends in the community member survey data suggest community members felt more positive about their community’s social cohesion, and the number of safe places for kids to play and be active in their neighborhood. This is unsurprising, considering there are usually students playing basketball by 7 a.m.


When the schoolyard was unveiled, Beyer said the change was immediate. “The community went from feeling like they had to drive across town to ride bikes to opening the door and playing,” he said. “That affects your social and emotional being and your sense of self. It changes the climate and culture of the neighborhood.”


Community members, too, have noticed the change. “I love the schoolyard because it brings families together,” said local resident Terry Smith, whose son is a first-grader at Morrill. “Sometimes people go to the garden to have a picnic—just watching the flowers. It’s better this way. When this wasn’t here, this was just a junk place. Everybody’s trying to keep it beautiful.”


Space to Grow is receiving attention from outside the community as well, with several awards and exposure at conferences. The program’s partners were thrilled when Space to Grow: Greening Chicago Schoolyards was recently recognized with the Best of Green Schools Award for Collaboration. This award was especially meaningful because collaboration has driven the program’s success, bringing together diverse groups of people and leaders from across different industries to accomplish goals that benefit our entire city.

New Report Shares Schoolyard Best Practices

Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands recently released the report Green Schoolyards: A Growing Movement Supporting Health, Education and Connection with Nature, based on findings from the 2015 National Green Schoolyards Summit. The report documents the journeys and lessons of green schoolyard programs from across the country, including Space to Grow. The schoolyards, innovative partnerships, and new ideas that are featured in the report will significantly benefit the nation’s children, communities, and environment, and the inspiring stories will fuel the growing movement of green schoolyards.


About the Authors


Rochelle Davis, President and CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign
Rochelle Davis brings broad experience as a leader in children’s wellness and environmental health to her role as president and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), a national not-for-profit organization she founded in 2002. HSC advocates for national, state, and local policies and offers programs that make schools healthier places to learn and work. She is co-chair of the National Collaborative for Education and Health, a national effort to support schools in creating the conditions of student health. In 2013, she co-chaired the Working Group on Health and Education, which was convened by the Surgeon General. Davis has been instrumental in the development of national healthy school food advocacy initiatives, including the Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest, and school environmental health resources, such as the Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools.


Jaime Zaplatosch, Vice President of Community Engagement and Education, Openlands
Jaime Zaplatosch is the Vice President of Community Engagement and Education at Openlands. She started with Openlands in 2004 as the Education Coordinator. Since joining, the organization’s school-based programs have grown to include a substantial school garden and teacher training program called Building School Gardens, Eco-Explorations for elementary and high school students at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, and Openlands’ newest schoolyard program, Space to Grow. Jaime has helped create school gardening programs at more than 140 schools throughout the city and has taught people of all ages, ranging from preschool to adult, in London, Arizona, and Chicago. She has a B.A. in Environmental Education from Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona and a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.