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Trading Concrete for Green School Grounds



Removing asphalt and concrete to make way for green space on Chicago school playgrounds has become routine for Openlands. The conservation organization has helped 54 schools build gardens and green space in the Chicago Public School district, often taking out impermeable surfaces in the process. This summer, for the first time, Openlands also helped remove a large traditional play structure of slides and climbing equipment on a cement slab at Nathanael Greene Elementary School.

“It’s the first time we’ve removed playground equipment to make room for more flexible green space,” says Jaime Zaplatosch, Openlands director of education. In its place is a field that can be used as an outdoor classroom, soccer field or any number of activities. Surrounding the field are a rain garden, boulders, ADA-compliant pathways, tree stumps, and nooks for unstructured play, exploration and scientific inquiry.

Openlands’ community greening and education initiatives received national attention April 11 during a visit from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin to Greene Elementary.

Healthy Schools Campaign, along with representatives from a diverse team of Chicago community partners including Openlands, showcased the broad healthy eating and physical activity initiatives that have earned Greene Elementary Gold-level recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge, a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative.

Healthy Schools Campaign launched their Go for the Gold program in 2010 as a way to support the various Chicago public schools attempting to meet the requirements of the HealthierUS School Challenge.

During a luncheon among partners after the tour of Greene Elementary, Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann spoke to the power of teamwork and partnerships in achieving success.

“(Schools are) a wonderful place to connect people to nature,” Adelmann said. “But also to connect people to healthy living and wellness, to think about active recreation, to think about the broader impact on the community. Our planning model has always been to engage all of those stakeholders.”

And engage they do. Before investing in a schoolyard makeover, Openlands needs to know there is buy-in at the school. A garden committee of school staff, parents and students help plan the changes, and students and their families plant the new vegetation. Openlands trains teachers how to use the space as an outdoor classroom, and it monitors school gardens to see if they continue to be used by students and maintained.  (So far, 91% are.

In a city where students may not have access to a park or yard, “our bigger mission is to create that daily connection with nature,” Zaplatosch says.

Read more about Building School Gardens >>

Read about U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin’s visit to Nathanael Greene Elementary School >>

Writer: Kendall Slee
Editor: Chris Soto
Photo courtesy of Openlands

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