The Nature of a School Landscape

Think back to your childhood school … what is the first image that pops into your head? I have two distinct memories of elementary school.​ One is of me swinging next to Katie Coffee on the big metal swing set the day after Jimmy Carter was elected President.​ The other is of a big maple tree between my third grade classroom building and the street. I am lying on the grass underneath it, flat on my back.

“Look into the branches,” my teacher directed us. “Pay attention to what you see, what you hear, what you feel, and what you smell.”​

I watched the leaves move with the breeze, shifting to let different shapes of sky peek through. I felt the cool kiss of wind on my face and inhaled the scent of fresh cut grass. My eyes bathed in greens and golds washed in sunlight. Birds sang. Dampness found its way from the earth through my striped turtleneck to my shoulder blades.

As I searched for words to fill my haiku, I felt differently about the world I thought I knew. This small strip of parkway suddenly became a whole new place. In one simple poetry exercise I found reason to look up into the trees at individual leaves and movement, down through the grass to the small movements of ants and insects, and past the trees to a blue sky full of wispy clouds. I felt the earth cradle me and the breeze bathe me and I sniffed the sweetness around me. I found comfort out there. I found rest. I found peace.

Thirty years later, I moved my own children from the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, to California so I could study ecological planning and design. They attended four different elementary schools as I transitioned from stay-at-home mom to graduate student to working mom. We moved four times in seven years. Each move, I looked for neighborhoods with excellent schools, and found them. And yet, when we moved to Los Angeles, my children lost one of the most precious and undervalued school resources. They had access to culture, art and history, the vibrancy of life in our eclectic northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. But these things came at a high cost: the lack of a decent school landscape.

This was no small matter for them or me. But it took me longer to appreciate it. My children told me in every way they knew how that their new school wasn’t adequate.

“Where’s the grass?” Jacob asked. We stood in the middle of the asphalt playground at Eagle Rock Elementary School during our tour of their new school. A brand new play structure stood in a pool of rubber surfacing fenced to one corner of the asphalt.

“There’re no real trees,” Grace said. I looked around. There were trees, but I could see what she meant. The trees stood along the outdoor eating shelter in a line. They were nothing more than dried out puffs of pine needles poking out of a sea of asphalt. And they were in the shade of the building … not in the hot part of the playground where shade was so desperately needed. One little arc of matted grass with a stick-like tree in the center was across the yard. It wasn’t inviting. The grass might hold ten kids of they sat very close together. Three or four portable classrooms sat slightly askew from each other mid-way between the main building and the kindergarten classroom on the other side of the grounds. I wondered if there was any grass on the schoolyard before they were put in.

I searched for some redeeming quality to the school grounds. This school had gotten excellent ratings on The front had been so welcoming. A 20-foot wide lush grassy parkway hosted enormous deodar cedar trees out front, an appropriate entrance to the 1920s art deco building. The grass wrapped around one side of the schoolyard, hosting a walkway that cut through the block to the L-shaped street that led to the public library. Maybe the teachers took their kids out front when they needed to cool down in a bit of nature? I hoped so. I turned to lead the kids back in, and spotted a swish of green past the back pod classroom.

“Oh look,” I said, pointing. “Let’s go see what that is.” We walked to the side of the schoolyard and found a beautiful collection of raised beds filled with flowers, vegetables and grasses in all colors and varieties. Vines climbed up the surrounding chain link fence and a large tree shaded one corner and gave the garden a sheltered, secret feeling. The kids looked longingly inside. I felt a little better. Surely my children would spend some time in this lovely little garden.

Grace attended Eagle Rock Elementary for three years, and Jacob for four. They made a few friends, loved a couple of their teachers, and went on some great field trips: the Autry Museum, Griffith Observatory, the Natural History Museum. They took orchestra there and art class. They went to after school care at the nearby park, which they adored. I volunteered at the school and helped in their classrooms as I had at their first two schools. They had a community there. But they never loved this school. They gave two reasons: the principal and the landscape. But it was the landscape that really mattered.

Their first school was Cornelius Elementary School in North Carolina. It was similar to mine in all the ways that counted. Big trees covered a large play area out front with swings and play equipment and a few shrubs to soften the fence line. Out back, acres of grass stretched away from the building, giving lots of room to run and play games or find a quiet spot to sit with a friend under the trees that ringed the field. Grace and Jacob loved that school deeply, even though Grace was there for just two years and Jacob only for kindergarten.

When we first moved to Southern California, we rented an apartment in Walnut, a bedroom community in the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. The children went to Walnut Elementary School. After the first week of school, I asked the kids what they liked best about their school.

“The grass,” Jacob said. “And that we get to eat lunch outside.” Eating outside was a novelty coming from the east coast.

“The big tree at the back of the field,” Grace said. “Me and my friends sit under it at recess.” The kids adjusted to their new school pretty well. It wasn’t that different than their old school, despite the fact that it was across the country.

Our next move, just 25 miles to Los Angeles, was much harder on the kids. I remained stubbornly optimistic. They never felt the love they had felt for Cornelius or Walnut. They never felt any love for that school. From the beginning when people asked them how their school was, they said, “There’s no grass.”

“Did you get to go in the garden?” I asked the children every week or so when they came home from school.

“Nope,” they said, with more disappointment as the weeks went by. Finally one week they came home and said, “Mom, it’s just for the GATE kids. We don’t get to go in the garden.”

“What are the GATE kids?” I asked.

“Gifted and talented,” Jacob said. I surmised this was the unfortunate term given to the advanced students. My children, who were as brilliant as any of them, were not driven academically. They were curious about their world, and spent hours each day exploring our back yard and playing games they made up themselves. But their desire to do well in school was overridden by other interests: skateboarding, reading, drawing, climbing the trees in the back yard. I blamed it on the rash of senseless worksheets and lack of experiential learning.

The fact that my children, and those average and under-performing students like them, didn’t get to use the school garden, felt deeply wrong. These were the children who needed to interact with nature during the school day. These were the children who most needed the restoration and inspiration provided by nature. Why didn’t this school, one of the highest ranked schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, have outdoor learning opportunities? More importantly, why didn’t this school have a decent landscape?

It turns out, Eagle Rock Elementary School’s landscape was decent … at least in comparison with other LAUSD schools. The junior/senior high school a half mile east has grass on campus. But a jumble of backs of buildings confronted the community rather than a welcoming entry, and the entire perimeter was surrounded by an 8-12’ chain link fence.

“It looks like a prison,” Phaedra said. She and Jim, whose two boys were five and two, were already talking about options other than the public high school for just this reason. In fact, all of the friends I had outside of the children’s school were saying the same thing. And so were many of the parents whose children went to elementary school with mine.

“At least it has grass,” Jacob said when he started seventh grade there. The landscape wasn’t welcoming or warm or beautiful in any way. The entry was hidden around the side of the school and difficult to find. A haphazard collection of portable classrooms behind the chain link fence cluttered up the street frontage along Yosemite Drive, a main street in Eagle Rock. And the parkway along the street was permanently trampled into a matted muddy mess from the thousands of students who walked through it during drop-off and pick-up every day. Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School, opened in 1927 to serve 750 students. The year my children started school there, it housed over 3,000.

Despite very good test scores and high school ratings, my children were not proud of their urban schools. They longed for the schools they attended when they were smaller – unfenced, lush and green and welcoming to the community. They longed for the tree-ringed fields of grass of the suburbs. And though our urban school systems struggle to secure the land they need to build new schools with generous grounds, nowhere are beautiful landscapes needed more than in our cities.

The original kindergarten model taught children the arts, sciences, mathematics and social justice by giving them each a garden to plan, plant and tend. They harvested the food they grew, and gave the extra to people in their community who didn’t have enough. Sometimes we forget the obvious answers to our problems. What about schools without walls at all? If there is anywhere in the US that can be the test bed for garden schools, it is Southern California. There are plenty of stories about the academic success of children who have gardens in their schools, including this one: “Leo Politi Elementary west of downtown wanted only to make a dreary corner of campus more inviting to its 817 students,” Louis Sahagun wrote in his April 2012 Los Angeles Times article. “Workers ripped out 5,000 square feet of concrete and planted native flora. What happened next was unforeseen. The plants attracted insects, which attracted birds, which attracted students, who, fascinated by the nature unfolding before them, learned so much that their test scores in science rose sixfold.”

In my research as a parent or in landscape architecture, I have yet to find a measure of school quality that includes anything about the quality of landscape. Even the most current discussions leave out the element that was most important to me and my children, though they do acknowledge that measuring by test scores and reputation alone has driven a deeper wedge in school quality: ( ). In my work programming school grounds I’ve come across recommendations for square feet of play area needed per number of students, but many school programming plans will accommodate more students in less space by providing staggered lunch and recess times. Too often, our urban schools are losing ground(s) rather than gaining them with portable classrooms and asphalt covering anything that might have once grown. And from the front, fences and barricades now pose prison-like facades where grand entries and beautiful streetscapes once beckoned.

It is the school grounds that first greet our children and their families and invite them in from the community. It is on the schoolyard that our children learn how to socialize with their peers and find respite or not from their school work. It is on the schoolyard that children meander and gather before school, run around at recess and lunch or hang out with their friends after school as they get older.It is through views of schoolyards with trees and nature where children and teachers can find solace and respite during the day to better cope with the stress of work and learning.  Our children’s time in school can be scary and overwhelming or happy and full of wonder. We need to begin valuing the school landscape as one of the most important indicators of our children’s outlook and outcome. We need to place as much, if not more, value on these landscapes as we do on the buildings themselves. Think back to that first childhood image of school. What was yours? Is the memory of a landscape or a building? Or something else entirely? I’d like to know.

Please leave me a comment, and I’ll compile the results and revisit the topic soon.