Oakland Schoolyards Initiative Revitalizes Outdoor Play Areas To Improve Children's Health
Chronic lack of vigorous physical activity contributes to high rates of obesity and has a detrimental effect on children's health and readiness to learn. Communities across the country are therefore developing strategies to enhance outdoor play areas and expand access to them.
Open spaces where children can play tag and hopscotch, soccer and flag football, are in short supply in many urban areas, particularly in low-income communities like San Antonio, a diverse neighborhood of 36,000 residents sandwiched between the 580 and 880 freeways in East Oakland. Often crowded by temporary classroom trailers, schoolyards tend to be under-maintained, and subject to crime and vandalism. They are closed during non-school hours, leaving thousands of children who live in neighborhoods without safe public parks anywhere to play.
Schools undertake ongoing repair and renovation all the time, says David Kakishiba of Oakland-based East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), "but usually the best case scenario is that they'll re-pave a surface, throw up a couple basketball hoops, and paint some lines."
His goal, shared by a coalition of parents and students, community residents, and school and city leaders, is to develop a more thoughtful process for schoolyard improvements that includes participation and decision-making by end-users. "It's not about spending more money, but spending it smarter," he says. Quick and inexpensive implementation of these plans is key to maintaining community support.
EBAYC is coordinating the Oakland Schoolyards Initiative (OSI), an effort inspired in part by the success of a similar program in Boston. The Boston Schoolyards Initiative, a public-private partnership launched in 1995 to foster collaboration and investment in revitalizing these historically neglected spaces, has improved more than 70 schoolyards across the city's diverse neighborhoods. The program is funded through a combination of annual capital budget allocations from the City of Boston and donations channeled through the private Boston Schoolyards Funding Collaborative.
Different from parks and playgrounds, a schoolyard is an outdoor classroom that offers opportunities for experiential learning through recreation and creative play, along with academic lessons from science and math to art and writing. The Boston model has demonstrated improvements in both physical fitness and academic performance. In Boston schools with renovated yards, approximately 25% more fourth-graders passed the state math test in 2005.
A resolution establishing the Oakland Schoolyards Initiative (OSI) was enacted by the Oakland Unified School District in December 2007. At four pilot schools, out of a total of 10 target schools, the transformation of schoolyards into enhanced recreational, learning and garden spaces is now underway. Kakishiba says that the two most critical elements of the process are (1) working closely with the School District's Facilities Department, and (2) developing and following through on a participatory design process that truly engages all the stakeholders.
"These are schoolyards, so therefore they are school district property," he notes. "You need to understand how the Facilities Department works, its resources and its priorities. They will become an important part of your project management team." Other receptive partners in Oakland have included the City Council, which sees schoolyard improvement as a tangible city service that will benefit constituents, and the Unity Council, a non-profit community development corporation. Four schoolyard improvement plans have been developed and approved by the District. Two plans are awaiting funding, one is under construction and Garfield Elementary's schoolyard is completed.
The participatory design process takes time, sustained community outreach, and the expertise of landscape architects and trained facilitators. At Garfield Elementary School, one of the Initiative's four pilot schools, parents, students and teachers participated in a series of three community design workshop meetings, progressing over the course of several months from brainstorming and wish lists to hands-on involvement in generating, with the help of computer software, plans that then undergo a "reality check" with the Facilities Department. In total about 150 parents attended the three workshops. And to ensure meaningful participation by attendees, EBAYC staff provided translation at every workshop from English to four different languages (Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Khmer).
Today, Garfield Elementary's schoolyard is a colorful and dynamic space filled with active children, spread out among new basketball courts, kickball and foursquare play areas, play structures for younger children, and a thriving school garden. More students are using the schoolyard and increasing their level of physical activity, and teachers are seeing improvements in students' attendance, alertness, and overall fitness.
Individual school sites do not pay for the changes to their schoolyards. Instead, the Oakland Schoolyards Initiative is supported by grants from private foundations including The California Endowment, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Stewardship Council, as well as funds from the Oakland City Council. Most construction costs are funded by District school construction bonds; community and corporate volunteers do much of the site improvement work. The Initiative is part of the statewide collaborative Healthy Eating, Active Communities, which aims to fight the growing childhood obesity epidemic in California and to develop state policy changes that will reduce the risk factors for diabetes and obesity.
Learn about the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland.
David Kakishiba, Executive Director, East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), (510) 533-1092, ext. 25, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tamiko Johnson, HEAC Oakland Site Coordinator, Alameda Public Health Department: (510) 595-6439, Tamiko.Johnson@acgov.org
Boston Schoolyard Initiative: www.schoolyards.org
Schoolyard Improvements and Standardized Test Scores: An Ecological Analysis - a report by the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts/Boston