Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 013: ASPHALT JUNGLE

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. Today there are 50 million kids in the US school system who spend less time outdoors than any other generation before them, and when children are let out for recess, it's most often on expanses of asphalt, barren wastelands with no shade or greenery. In today's episode, we learn about the huge mental, physical, and emotional health benefits children receive by being exposed to nature during their school days. We visited with two schools that are part of the growing green school yard movement.  Pulling up asphalt and replacing it with living school yards represents a quantum leap in the way we treat children in this country, and as a result, it will impact how these children treat the world around them. Let's start by talking with Richard Louv, who is the best-selling author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” This book caused huge waves when it was first published in 2005 and “Last Child in the Woods” continues today as a catalyst to reconnect our children with nature. Richard has written two follow-up books called “The Nature Principle” and “Vitamin N” and is the founder of “The Children and Nature Network.” I started by asking Richard why 40 percent of American schools have either eliminated or are considering eliminating recess.

 

RICHARD LOUV: The canceling of recess makes no sense at all. I mean kids that are hyperactive are punished by taking recess away from them. You know, if kids are bouncing off the walls, the problem may not be the kids and may be the walls.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And our schools just look like prison yards.

 

RICHARD LOUV: Well actually in California, as you probably know, many of the newest schools were not only designed, but built by the same people who build prisons in California.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I didn't realize that. That terrifying.

 

RICHARD LOUV: The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. It's an equation, it’s a question of budgeting, of time and money. And I think in schools for every dollar that's spent on the virtual, we ought to spend at least another dollar on the real, particularly if it's natural. It's a question of balance. Schools of the future that The New Yorker wrote about a couple of years ago is a school in Brooklyn. It's an elementary school, it's upstairs. There's no place to play, no nature at all, no playground, and the kids are on those iPads and computers and other electronic gadgets all day. Not only that, there are fisheye cameras in all of the walls watching these kids.  And the good news they say is testing as we know it will go away. The weird news is that we won't need testing because the machines will be watching our kids all the time. I don't know about you, but I find that….

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It’s Orwellian. It’s the only way to describe that.

 

RICHARD LOUV: So, the mood for balance, the lobby for balance has to come from a social movement. The movement to reconnect people to nature is a big part of that.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about your views on the importance of schools and education in helping kids understand the cycle of life.

 

RICHARD LOUV: Not that many years ago, some environmental educators, believe it or not did not respond well to the idea that maybe we ought to be taking kids outdoors. They didn't see that as part of the environmental education. One of the things I'd like to see a lot more of is schools and libraries becoming centers of bioregional knowledge and awareness to focus at least some of the science that they learned in school on their own bioregion. In San Diego, for instance, where I live, the more you're aware of where you are, the more you value where you are and the more you probably are going to try to protect the nature of where you are. And it also importantly gives kids and adults a sense of psychological grounding. This is good for us to know where we come from.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the most startling headlines to come out of your research and your writing, Richard, was the relationship between ADHD and the fact that it's aggravated by a lack of exposure to nature.

 

RICHARD LOUV: Today, if you go to “The Children in Nature Network,” which is a nonprofit that grew out of “Last Child in the Woods,” you'll see abstracts for over 700 studies and they all seem to point in the same direction, which says being outdoors is good for physical health, mental health and cognitive functioning.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When you talk to families and kids in particular about what they want their schools to look like, what do you hear?

 

RICHARD LOUV: There is a counter movement in actualizing the school yards and getting kids outdoors to learn more, but that's still a minority movement. Small movement within education, but what I hear from teachers is that parents are the biggest problem. The parents don't want the kids to get dirty. The parents put pressure on the schools to get more computers. Even though parents apparently know about the health benefits of nature to their kids, they apparently want to get their kids ready to be corporate employees.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: But what you've helped people do is discover that sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of wonderment and in nature is something that can help them transcend people's daily lives.

 

RICHARD LOUV: One of the things I didn't understand what I wrote “Last Child” was that it didn't matter what somebody's religion or politics were. They all wanted to tell me about the treehouse they had when they were kids. That special place in nature that’s still in their hearts that they still go to, even if the bulldozers finally came.  Everybody wants to tell those stories. And when you open the conversation with that, with people remembering these special places in nature and reminding them that it is not guaranteed for future generations to have that place in their heart to go to, you open the conversation. And we begin to talk about all kinds of issues like the urban design, like school design, school yards, healthcare. When you look at the future through the prism of nature, for instance, what would our cities be like if they were designed to connect people to nature? To connect children and adults. Some cities are already doing that, but what if we did that every even more so our lives were as immersed in nature every day as they are in technology. I think that's, it's a very different future we see.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the things I really like about your book is that it presents a positive vision of the future.

 

RICHARD LOUV: I talk often about what I call the dystopian trance, which is this depression culturally that we're in. And this precedes the 2016 election. I become convinced if you ask most Americans to describe the far future, what images come to their mind immediately, those images look a lot like Blade Runner and Mad Max.  And I think we are trapped in that dystopian trance and we need to begin to see, literally see in our mind's eye, a different future filled with beauty. And I think nature is a central way to imagine that future. Martin Luther King said that any movement, any culture, will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world we will want to go to. I think we have to paint that picture and we have to do it with the pigments of nature. And to the extent that kids don't connect to nature, there may not be an environmental movement in the future, that sense of joy that comes from being outdoors in the woods or lying on a field watching the clouds move. That's the ultimate power underlining the environmental movement. And we're in danger of losing that. And in the future they may carry nature in their briefcases and not in their hearts. That's a very different relationship. We have to inspire young people. We have to help them see a different future that they want to get up tomorrow morning and create nature-rich schools, nature-rich neighborhoods, nature-rich cities, a nature-rich future. If you use phrases like that, suddenly you can kind of see that future.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In order to understand how we turned the idea of nature-rich schools into reality, I meet up with Sharon Danks, who spent 15 years as a landscape architect helping schools convert asphalt play yards into living classrooms. She then founded and now runs Green Schoolyards America as a way to bring this vision to scale. Sharon is the author of “Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation.” So, Sharon, how come schoolyards look the way they do?

 

SHARON DANKS: They were largely designed in the 1940’s.  They were looking to train soldiers for the battlefield and prepare factory workers for their repetitive work in factories and that's not exactly what we're trying to do with our education right now.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is the kind of history of this idea of outdoor environmental education within the school?

 

SHARON DANKS: California is a world leader in school garden development and use and curriculum that connects the outdoors and the inside. Frequently cooking classes connecting to garden and now science classes using the plant growth that you see outside. To me, living school yards are very interdisciplinary ideas if they're looking for social, emotional engagement and looking to have the therapeutic benefits of landscape. And so, they might put in a small patch of forest and a garden to help kids who've had a lot of trauma in their lives have a place to recharge and distress. There's research out there that connects stress levels -having trees to lower stress levels and higher test scores. So health is one area and gardens kind of fit into that health framework, but then there's also environmental rationales.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So. what does a healthy schoolyard look like?

 

SHARON DANKS: I think a healthy schoolyard is one that feels more like a park. It's one that has choices of micro-climates so you can be comfortable on a hot day or a cool day. It's a place that allows children and families on the weekend to be active. It has places for social interaction and collaboration and cooperation and activities like a giant sandbox that invites 30 kids to build a collaborative sand castle or a sand city with rivers running through it. Or ways for children to be interacting and positive ways without an adult directing their conversations. And then also on the nutrition end of health, you have the gardens and garden education and learning to eat healthy and grow your own food.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It sounds idyllic, like who wouldn't want a green schoolyard? Every one that I've been to feels an inviting environment that I would want to spend time in. And as you said, a park is certainly more inviting than a prison. How much time do our kids get to spend outside?

 

SHARON DANKS: Not enough, kids don't spend enough time outside. Half of the kids in the United States get less than an hour outside every day and they compare that to the requirement for prisoners who are mandated two hours outside every day. It’s crazy.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, our kids get half the amount of time on average than prisoners are mandated it to be outside.

 

SHARON DANKS: That's often the case unfortunately.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There are places in the world where kids are getting time outside.

 

SHARON DANKS: Norway, until the 1960’s, restricted indoor education.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That's awesome. That’s kind of the way you'd want it to be.

 

SHARON DANKS: Exactly. And they also have standards for what you need to know at each grade level in Norway to gain competencies outdoors.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Maybe give us a sense of the scale of the schoolyard challenge in a state like California.

 

SHARON DANKS: California has a 130,000 acres of public school land and everyday 6.2 million K-12 kids are on that land. And if you were to think about those children as park visitors and our public land as potential parks to visit, that's a lot of daily users. In fact, that's more users in a day than our national park, Yosemite, has in a year.  So, in a single day, 6. 2 million kids are on our school grounds and only 5 million are at Yosemite in a year.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Wow. It seems like a huge opportunity.

 

SHARON DANKS: And I think these are plots of land in the center of every neighborhood, and if we wanted to connect every child to nature every day in a very democratic and egalitarian way, we would put the nature where the kids already are in their neighborhood, on the school ground land.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Given that we got this sea of asphalt, like what is your vision of what would it look like in an idealized world?

 

SHARON DANKS: Well, I think if we made every school ground a green schoolyard, we could make a positive impact on children, the environment and public land. And for children, we'd be able to give every child access to nature every day in the places where they already spend time.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, tell us a little bit about the benefits of having a green classroom as well as a school yard.

 

SHARON DANKS: We asked teachers what are you already teaching, that you'd like to be able to teach outside? Across the curriculum, across the grade level. So this is not about adding to the plates of teachers who are already busy. It's about making their teaching easier, more interesting, or engaging for them and for the kids. Piloting a curriculum now that's a related to measuring temperatures of playgrounds. How hot is the asphalt compared to the grass? How hot is it in the sun versus shade and all different materials? And so, they might, for example, see that it's 90 degrees cooler on the live grass under a tree than it is on the rubber safety surface, which is reading 165 as they can which is eye popping. And so having children be the scientists who go about that process during their science class. But also coming to democratic consensus with that scientific information about action that should be taken and then making recommendations to their school community about how do you retrofit that site to plant a tree in the right place to shade that hotspot and cool it?

 

So, we want to help kids be solution finders, changemakers for their environment. We asked the kids also, of course, what they would like to be doing outside and getting kids to draw pictures of their ideas and annotate them. They're not consulted often enough, so we try to amplify their voice in the planning process. We want every child to have access to nature every day. It is for their enjoyment of life, but it also has ramifications for test scores and mental health and physical health. A lot of schools and different places around the world have been experimenting with longer and longer recesses and finding that the attention kids pay to their schoolwork when they come back into to work is increased and so that more recess equals better academic achievement.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is the one ingredient that should be included in every school project?

 

SHARON DANKS: Our spaces for children should be designed with happiness as the first priority. And I think that we don't do that often enough in the U.S. So, I'd like to see places of happiness with great ecological health and children's health and wellbeing.

 

[SPONSOR MESSAGE]

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Now, back to our episode on greening schoolyards. I traveled to West Oakland to Hoover elementary school to talk with Ms. Wanda Stewart who is a force for nature. Ms. Wanda, tell us where we are.

 

WANDA STEWART: So, you are at the Hoover Hawks Victory Garden in West Oakland, California.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And what are we looking at?

 

WANDA STEWART: We're looking at a school and community garden that is 75-foot square, and cultivated by elementary school students, and it's full of food and fruits and vegetables and spaces to be in nature.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And tell us about the view that we get from the garden.

 

WANDA STEWART: Oh, the view from our gardens is a large expanse of blacktop, lots and lots of blacktop that has been measured as hot as 120 degrees on the right day. We've got about 350 kids or so who come to school here every day.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is your role, Ms. Wanda?

 

WANDA STEWART: I call myself the “garden life teacher.” We grow food and we learn about nature and we do a little bit of cooking. We just hang out in the fresh air and observe bugs. It's amazing how many times kids will be thrilled by roly polies. Man, you come out here to water the garden and take care of the garden even when you don't have to, when you could be playing on the play structure. You come and take care of the garden. How come you do that?

 

STUDENT: Because I'm a good garden tender.

 

WANDA STEWART: What makes a good garden tender?

 

STUDENT: Helping the plants grow. Bees fly around, and they collect pollen from flower to flower.

 

WANDA STEWART: There you go. Does that help our food grow?

 

STUDENT: Yeah.

 

WANDA STEWART: One of the things that I want to do with this garden and with any garden is it's a wonderful way to bring people together across language, across culture, across generation, across gender, across almost anything to have some shared goals around growing food. One of the things that we do are grow the crops that people would want to have. We have a lot of folks from Yemen, a lot of folks from Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and so we grow the stuff that they would like to have. And increasingly, they'll come out and help us grow this stuff they would like to have, right? So, we grow all the food out here, the kids and I. Then we'll harvest it and we take it out into the center of the courtyard and we give it away. But when we're giving away the stuff that people love - so like for the black folks, I got collard greens, right?

 

For our Latino families, it's lots of things. Tomatoes, peppers, and there was a time that I would've said chayotes, but our entire school loves chayotes, right? Sometimes there's tension between the black kids and the Latino kids, particularly this one day, so I said, “you know what? We need to teach y'all how to get along like collard greens and chayote.” And we made some, literally in my classroom, and it was the best pot of collard greens I've ever had, and it was the sweet of the chayote and the bitter of the collard greens and it was a nice blend and everybody loved it. And everybody also knows what I mean when I say get along like collard greens and chayote, right? I tell them, if I can teach you how to grow a seed, I can also at the same time teach you how to grow yourself. Right? And if we can grow a garden out here, we can grow a community at the same time. So, learning how to think first, learning impulse control, right? Learning how to care for one another, those are all things that we do at the same time. I'm the first to say you got to be a pretty tough plant to make it in the Hoover School Garden.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And yet they're doing amazingly, the plants.

 

WANDA STEWART: Look at all the plants we have, right? And the reality is that our kids at this school are hungry. I’ve been working in schools for 30 years, and these kids are hungrier than I'm used to seeing. And so, I also tell them that they will always be able to have food when they know how to grow their own, that they will always be able to feed their own children, because they know how to do it, right? So, come to the garden and calm down is getting to be a new thing.  Our teachers, mostly it's been me out here with the kids and couple of volunteers, but now teachers are learning, oh wait you go out there and just chill and go pick some food and you know, just go center down. So, it's becoming a nice place for that. It's a nice retreat for kids who, you know, when you living in the hood and it's pretty rough out there on the playground, and you're not that kind of kid, you know, you're more softer soul, to be able to come and sit up underneath the elderberry or up underneath the grandfather redwood and just chill out for 15 minutes during recess instead of needing to keep that intense pace of what it takes to be here, is a really, really good thing. (to student) “You got a red strawberry, that's a lucky day. Now, that's the reason to calm down.” I think I can see a way to do it that really impacts community and really impacts the way people look at their food and how they take care of their bodies. And so, why do you all like coming out here? Like you could be down there on the play structure, you could be hanging on the blacktop. How come you guys come out here?

 

STUDENT 1: Because it's peaceful and it's beautiful.

 

STUDENT 2: Because you feel more comfortable in the garden.

 

STUDENT 3: Because you'll like to see how the vegetables grow.

 

STUDENT 4: Because nature surrounds you.

 

WANDA STEWART: Are we excited about the chickens? Why do we want the chickens?

 

STUDENT: I want chickens because I have actually never seen baby chicks in real life before.

 

WANDA STEWART: Poo, y'all, poo.  We wanted for the poo. That's my choice.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you have ambitions over the rest of the blacktop?

 

WANDA STEWART: Yes. Our blacktop needs to go. It hurts kids. It is really hot. It's almost unconscionable for us to let the kids come out here and even play on certain days. Those days where we get those weird 90-degree days, the bay never gets, they shouldn't be out there on it. For as versed as I was around climate change and global warming, it wasn't until I came to Hoover and I stepped out on our yard on the 90 plus degree day did I really understand why global warming was a harder thing in the hood, right? I like really had to experience it to get it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There’s not a lot of shade.

 

WANDA STEWART: There's no shade anywhere.  You know, our school yard is five or six times the size of our garden, and it's massive.  And it could be beautiful, and we could be feeding people and we could have kids running on dirt and wood chips instead of hard black asphalt.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Is that vision going to be able to be turned into reality?

 

WANDA STEWART: I think anything can be turned into a reality, right? If you just start visioning it. I was visioning for myself, a school garden to grow somewhere and a place to put programs to teach people. Just because it's a garden doesn't mean you can't do yoga, doesn't mean you can't do cooking and art, right? So now Hoover has, in its’ garden, this amazing stage to present untold things to the world. So, to have more of that I think would be wonderful. To be able to let the little kids running the grass and take their shoes off and play with worms and roly polies that's making the world a better place. One roly poly at a time.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I love that.

 

WANDA STEWART: We're working on integrating the garden with what goes on in the cafeteria with what goes on in the classroom. And I've done a little bit of that, but now everyone's beginning to see the possibilities. It so happened that the Planet Bee folks were here to teach about bees today. Well, that was perfect because they'd been doing insects in class and doing the life cycle. So, they got to see it. I wish I could tell you we'd planned it to work that way. Right? We didn't. So, we're learning to do those kinds of things more. What's your name?

 

STUDENT: Julian.

 

WANDA STEWART: Do you like the garden?

 

JULIAN: I like to play around and like secret stuff and play around with my friends.

 

WANDA STEWART: They are acting and working creatively and applying the stuff that they do in the world and in their classrooms, in the garden. It's a pretty joyous thing to watch them grow.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: After getting inspired by Ms. Wanda, I went to talk with Maria Wyss at Rooftop Public Schools in San Francisco. Maria's the school's garden coordinator, and just like at Hoover Elementary, Rooftop still has a lot asphalt in that play yard. I asked Maria if the kids feel protective over their garden.

 

MARIS WYSS: I had a second-grade class in here last Friday and we noticed that there were some contractors. We're going to be having some work done to the school this summer. There are some trees that are in declining health and might pose a conflict with the construction and they said, well, we're going to be taking these four trees out. Then the kids started chanting, “keep the trees,” “keep the trees.”

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That is such a great story. I walked from the garden to meet with Cynthia Vaughn's class of first graders. On our way, I asked Cynthia Vaughn why she thinks greening the schoolyards is so important.

 

CYNTHIA VAUGHN: A sense of place, I think, for the kids creates a relationship with whatever experience you want to bring to them. The kids really got a sense of the power of nature right in their backyard and you build a community in your school, in your classroom. Our garden is an amazing gift that we have right here at Rooftop and the kids are taking care of plants in there. They are growing things. But you build these relationships at a young age so that they have a different sense of caring for it as they grow.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Next I sit down in Ms. Vaughn’s class of first graders who are discussing a plan for including more green space at this school.

 

IRIS: My name is Iris and green space is land where there's no buildings.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And why is it important to have land with no buildings?

 

IRIS: Because animals can live there. The rooftop garden is special because a leprechaun lives in the rooftop garden, I think.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do leprechauns like fresh air?

 

STUDENTS: Yes.  

 

IRIS: Water too. They need water to drink.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And does water have to be clean?

 

STUDENTS: Yes!

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you wish you had more recess?

 

STUDENTS: Yes!

 

CYNTHIA VAUGHN: What if the whole recess playground was nature?  Why would that be good?

 

STUDENTS: Yes! I want a playground in nature.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, the people who said put your hand up if you didn't like recess?

 

STUDENT: Because I like being in nature instead of cooped up on that enormous yard.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Who likes recess the best?

 

STUDENT: Because you can run around and get all the silly feelings out.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Is Ms. Vaughn the best teacher ever?

 

STUDENTS: Yes!

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I had such a great time with these six and seven-year-olds. I left the school feeling like anything is possible. Thanks to Richard Louv, Sharon Danks, Wanda Stewart, the children of Hoover elementary school, Maria Wyss, Cynthia Vaughn, and the kids at Rooftop School for opening my eyes to the huge benefits of connecting children with nature at school. What I took away from today's episode is that creating living school yards is one of the single most important actions we can take today to help our children become healthier, happier, and get better grades.

 

As Richard Louv explained, children, like all of us, need to experience nature in order to feel a connection to the planet we live on. By digging up the thousands of square miles of asphalt that cover school yards across the country and replacing them with living resilient park-like green schoolyards, we can grow food, help stormwater recharge our aquifers, reduce urban heat island impacts, and help integrate the nature on our doorstep into the way our children learn about everything from math to cooking. By increasing the amount of time our children spend outside, experiencing their living classrooms, we will end the shameful practice of treating the youngest and most sensitive members of our society like occupants of a prison. By recognizing that children need nature to succeed, we will be taking a big step towards healing the planet. In order to take action in your community, email your local school district or neighborhood school principal and ask what you can do to help. Maybe you have a green thumb and can help teach kids how to grow zucchini or maybe you have as a pickup truck and you can use it to bring mulch to your school.  Or maybe you want to help plant a maple tree in memory of a loved one. There are literally endless ways you can help green your local school, and I can tell you from this week's episode, it’s so much fun.

 

In next week's episode, we examine the swirling mass of plastic twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific. If you have time, please review the show on Apple's Podship Earth page. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have an excellent week.