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NEWS ITEM No. 1   Winter 2000/2001

Toronto District School Board school grounds guidelines: Transforming the Schoolyard: How local school communities design and build their playground learning environments

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is now at the leading edge of school boards that support and promote school grounds transformation. You can use the example set by the TDSB to encourage your own school board to support school grounds transformation. The following is adapted from an article published in the TDSB Parents' Environmental Network Newsletter, Vol. 7, No. 1  Winter 2000/2001.


The planning process offers schoolyard design teams new choices for outdoor play, exercise, creativity, learning and health.

Taking a new look at School Grounds

There was dismay and anger when some Toronto schools and families learned that their schoolyard play structures had been removed by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the summer of 2000 due to liability concerns arising from the revised CSA play equipment safety standards.

To redress this situation, the TDSB struck a committee in the fall of 2000 to look at the bigger picture of school grounds and not just at the play structure issue. The committee's mandate was to review all the options for school grounds design and to offer individual schools a wide range of alternative choices when considering play structure replacement.

The design committee was made up of a diverse group of school and community representatives including parents, teachers, trustees, school administrators and support staff, school committees, community groups, child care and special needs advisors, facility services staff and landscape architects.

The result of their work is a document entitled Transforming the Schoolyard: How local school communities design and build their playground learning environments. It presents an inclusive design process for schools to follow. The process invites school communities to assemble a design committee to work with a consultant provided by the Board to create a design for "an exemplary Playground Learning Environment". The document and the process encourage everyone involved in redesigning a schoolyard to take a long-term, comprehensive perspective on the potential for transforming the whole of the outdoor area.

Transforming School Groundsis thought-provoking. It is illustrated with many photographs, diagrams and sketches to show what our school grounds could be.

Design for the Whole Child: Diversity, Beauty, Well-Being

Transforming School Grounds offers a broad and well-documented choice of natural and built elements. It helps school design teams envision an "Exemplary Playground Learning Environment" and provides the tools required to achieve it. It focusses on creating healthy outdoor spaces that increase children's sense of well-being and offer more diversity and beauty and more opportunities for safe, active play and social interaction, formal and informal learning, and environmental stewardship.

"An exemplary playground will be a remarkable community resource - a transformed natural landscape for children and adults to experience and enjoy as well as an imaginative and safe environment in which to play, learn and meet."

Design choice is up to individual schools

It is important to note that the choice of school grounds transformation projects is up to individual schools. Transforming School Grounds draws from a wide variety of possible schoolyard projects and helps school communities consider how to make the most of all of their school grounds resources in both the immediate and the longer term. The document provides ideas for projects and activities that are not usually included in the traditional design of school grounds.

New play structures and the more typical elements of playgrounds such as places for active play and sports are shown in drawings and photographs and their approximate prices are given. TheTransforming School Grounds design process encourages looking at alternative uses for schoolyards to provide creative playing, socializing, teaching and learning opportunities.

The many benefits of outdoor learning environments

In reading through Transforming School Grounds, one is able to visualize outdoor school environments that are quite different from the stark, paved areas of the typical schoolyard. It conjures up images of a diverse area with open spaces for a variety of sports and games, sheltered green places for quiet play, games and other social activities, outdoor classroom spaces, landscaped areas for exploration and colourful murals to brighten the outdoors, particularly during the drab Winter months.

Perhaps the most engaging and hopeful aspect of this opportunity for schools to redesign their grounds is that the TSDB has fully embraced what has been happening at the grassroots level in Canada and around the world for the past fifteen years - using school grounds as a vital educational resource.

A growing number of schools and their communities are discovering the many opportunities that outdoor classroom spaces can offer for teaching a diverse range of formal curricula including, science, geography, mathematics, language, history, drama, art and music.

Spaces in the schoolyard that have been little used are being transformed into a fascinating diversity of gardens, wildlife habitat and shaded seating areas for learning outdoors. Teachers and students are discovering that their  own school grounds can become a destination for field trips that require no complicated arrangements, payment, permission forms, transportation or advance planning. They are learning together about how their grounds can be used for the study of geology, soils, soil erosion, life cycles, plant and animal communities, seasonal changes, hibernation, seed dispersal, plant identification and classification, food growing and food security issues. They are developing creative thinking and long-term planning skills and learning how to consider all factors through a hands-on approach to re-designing their school grounds and implementing and maintaining projects.

Hands-on learning and achievement

Academic research shows that learning in the outdoors benefits students intellectually, psychologically and socially. In a comprehensive north American study, Closing the Achievement Gap, Dr. Gerald Lieberman has gathered convincing evidence of students' enhanced academic achievement and information retention levels when using the Environment as an Integrative Context (EIC) for Learning. Authentic, hands-on learning is a powerful reinforcer of classroom textbook learning. Contact with the natural world has a demonstrably positive effect on a student's ability to contextualize information.

Learning for the future

In 1999, the TDSB created what is reputedly the first Department of Environmental Education in a Canadian public school board. The creation of this department is the result of a growing awareness that students need to know how to make wise choices with respect to the use of finite natural resources and health of the environment.

Developing school grounds as a resource for learning about the environment can greatly contribute to teachers' and students' understanding of natural cycles and processes, and the importance of keeping them clean and healthy, and the connections between human health and the health of the natural world.

Many schools are involving students in planting trees and learning as they do so about how trees help to offset climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, prevent soil erosion, reduce energy consumption by providing natural cooling in warm weather and wind-breaks in Winter, create habitat for wildlife, provide shade to help protect us from harmful ultra-violet rays and also add beauty and variety to schoolyards.

In these times of funding cutbacks, there is some skepticism regarding the level of funding that will be available to make the suggestions contained in Transforming School Grounds a reality. However, the many examples of school grounds transformation projects in Canada and elsewhere prove that a lot can be accomplished with relatively little money. The TDSB 's Transforming School Grounds is definitely worth a good look - you may never think about your child's schoolyard the same way again!

Three copies of Transforming School Grounds are available at all TDSB elementary and middle schools.

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