Participatory Schoolyard Design for Health and Well-Being: Policies that Support Play in Urban Green Spaces

  • Victoria L. DerrEmail author
  • Alessandro Rigolon
Living reference work entry
Part of the Geographies of Children and Young People book series (GCYP, volume 12)


Informal play in nature is fundamental to children’s health and well-being, providing physical, social, and psychological benefits. Yet children in urban environments frequently lack access to natural spaces for free play. Participatory planning similarly is important across many domains in contributing to children’s well-being. This chapter reviews the benefits and threats to children’s informal play in nature in cities today. It then examines the role of green schoolyards as one means of providing opportunities for such play. Finally, it explores a case study of a participatory planning and design process to expand nature play opportunities in a schoolyard and adjacent park in Boulder, Colorado, USA. Interviews with professionals involved in the project are used to identify themes, programs, and policies at municipal, state, and international levels that promote children’s informal play in urban green spaces.


Green schoolyards Parks Children Informal play Nature Participatory planning Health Well-being Policies Child-friendly cities 

1 Introduction

Children living in urban environments frequently lack access to quality natural spaces for informal play. Yet informal play in nature is an important contributor to children’s health and well-being . This chapter explores local and state-level programs and policies that support children’s informal play in urban green spaces. To do so, it first identifies the benefits children derive from informal play in nature and current threats to this play and then it examines the role of green schoolyards in providing opportunities for informal play, thus increasing equitable access to health and well-being.

Building on a previous study conducted by the authors (Rigolon et al. 2015), this chapter focuses on the case of a joint-use green schoolyard in Boulder, Colorado, USA, to discuss how different policies and programs can help promote children’s informal play in nature. To design this schoolyard, a participatory process involved schoolchildren, parents, school staff, local residents, park staff, and faculty and students from the local university’s design program. Among the many partners, Growing Up Boulder (GUB), a child- and youth-friendly city initiative, facilitated the participatory design process in partnership with the city and school. Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) provided funding for playground construction. Based on interviews with professionals involved in this project, lessons are extracted about the way programs and policies can support children’s informal nature play in urban green spaces, with guidance that could be used by schools, cities, and states.

2 Children’s Health and Well-Being

Children’s health and well-being is linked to independent mobility (Carroll et al. 2013; Tranter 2006), access to unstructured play in nature (Wells 2014), and opportunities for participation and meaningful contributions to society (Chawla and Heft 2002; Driskell 2002; Malone and Hartung 2010). Access to informal play in nature is important for mental restoration (Wells 2014), positive and creative social play (Bundy et al. 2013), physical activity and health (Dyment et al. 2009), and environmental care and competence (Chawla and Derr 2012). Informal play, in particular, is significant in that it promotes fields of free action, where children can independently explore (Reed 1996). Through spontaneous play, children connect to natural cycles, satisfy curiosities, and learn about their own capabilities in relation to the natural world, thus fostering a sense of place (Chawla and Derr 2012; Derr 2006; Tranter 2006). Children themselves recognize the importance of natural features for play and learning (Chawla et al. 2014). Children in participatory planning commonly request natural features, including water elements, animal habitats, and wildlife (Chawla 2002; Francis and Lorenzo 2006; Malone 2013; Moore and Wong 1997; Rigolon et al. 2015).

As cities become more densely populated, children’s independent mobility and access to informal play may decrease because of increased traffic, dangerous intersections, and parental fears (Freeman and Tranter 2011). The amount of physical space devoted to play may also decrease, thus reducing diversity of and access to play spaces in cities (Carroll et al. 2013). Children’s ability to take risks as part of their informal play has been greatly constrained by the design of the physical environment, including the ability to experience risks important for development, such as by climbing a tree or scaling a fallen log. School environments also place limits on children’s play opportunities by removing play structures from schoolyards and by reducing recess time (Freeman and Tranter 2011). Some suggest that when children’s ability to take risks is inhibited in their informal play environments, children may seek out more dangerous uses of play equipment (Hart 2002) or socially inappropriate opportunities for risk-taking, such as bullying (Bundy et al. 2013; Freeman and Tranter 2011).

Furthermore, children living in cities today frequently have less access to wild nature, and the nature they do experience tends to be common species that coexist well with denser human populations and infrastructure (Astbury 2013; Freeman and Tranter 2011). Thus, city children experience environmental inequities when they live in built environments that lack natural areas with diverse species and habitats (Davis 2014). Quality of habitat is not only important for the experience of diverse and stimulating natural environments but also for the diversity of play, learning, and adaptive behaviors these environments afford (Chawla et al. 2014; Kahn and Kellert 2002).

Access to nature also differs for children from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. A growing body of literature has shown that in the United States, neighborhoods with higher concentrations of low-income and ethnic minority groups have less access to parks than high-income areas (National Recreation and Park Association 2011; Wolch et al. 2014). These inequities in access to nature are particularly felt in urban areas, where children rely on parks and school grounds to access nature. In particular, a recent study conducted in Denver, Colorado, showed that low-income neighborhoods have particularly low access to parks that include formal and informal play amenities or that provide sufficient vegetation for shade and enclosure (Rigolon and Flohr 2014). This is particularly important in relation to children’s health, as children with access to parks that include playgrounds have higher levels of physical activity than children with access to parks that lack playgrounds (Potwarka et al. 2008).

This lack of access to nature, informal play and independent mobility has significant impacts on children’s physical health and well-being. Children today show higher incidence of obesity, insufficient exposure to vitamin D, high rates of stress, anxiety and attention disorders (McCurdy et al. 2010), and high incidence of bullying (Bundy et al. 2013). When children’s independent mobility is restricted, so too are the benefits associated with it including development of social connections, wayfinding skills, and environmental competencies (Carroll et al. 2011). Children in rural environments are often more able to access such informal nature play than their urban counterparts (Derr 2006). Yet in urban environments, children also seek out natural places for play and exploration (e.g., Derr 2006; Kong 2000).

Finally, the United Nations General Comment on Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child suggests that children’s right to informal play has yet to be considered seriously by local or national governments (UNICEF 2014). Focus on obesity prevention and other physical health factors have to a certain degree overshadowed the importance of informal play on cognitive and mental development, social skills, imagination, and restoration (Sipe et al. 2006). Yet both physical and mental factors are essential to children’s overall health and well-being.

3 Ways to Increase Children’s Health and Well-Being

A recent issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research focusing on “Green Health” showed a variety of strategies that cities and school districts can use to reduce the risks that children face today (Botchwey et al. 2014). Among these strategies, this chapter focuses on schoolyard greening through children’s participation in design.

3.1 Green Schoolyards

Children around the world consistently seek out unstructured play in nature where they can freely explore, invent their own activities, and imagine (Derr 2006; Kong 2000; Sipe et al. 2006). While children have the right to access playspaces throughout the city, many children are increasingly pushed to playgrounds and parks as the only spaces sanctioned for their use. Public spaces are asked to support more intense use while simultaneously providing risk-averse play environments that do not support children’s free play (Francis and Lorenzo 2006; Walsh 2006). At the same time, the amount of time allocated for recess and free play during school hours has been reduced in many parts of the world (e.g., Gill 2007). Green schoolyards thus become spaces to redress school policies that restrict play (Freeman and Tranter 2011) and to offer sites for environmental learning and exploration during school time (Danks 2010; Freeman and Tranter 2011; Ito 2014). Because most school-aged children have access to school grounds on a regular basis, these spaces have the potential to provide young people with daily contact with nature during nonschool times as well. In recent years, policy makers, non-governmental organizations and scholars thus have increased attention to the promotion of green schoolyards.

Among a growing number of schoolyard greening programs in the United States are the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) in North Carolina (NLI 2009), the Edible Schoolyard (Waters 2008) and Collective Roots (2014) in California, and the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF) Schoolyard Habitats program (NWF 2014). In order to broaden the reach of natural playscapes, the NWF and NLI recently published national guidelines for greening school grounds and other areas for children’s play and learning (Moore and Cooper 2014). A similar program implemented in the United Kingdom is Learning through Landscapes, focusing on outdoor education and play in green schoolyards (Learning through Landscapes, n.d.). In the south of Japan, landscape architects have used a participatory framework to create ecological learning spaces in schoolyards or city parks (Ito 2014). In Sweden, the city of Malmö initiated a green school grounds project in 2010 to revitalize impoverished schoolyards through a participatory process. This was one of the first municipalities to promote citywide greening of school grounds (Jansson and Mårtensson 2012).

The contrast between a single school project in Fukuoka City and multiple and simultaneous projects in Malmö point to some of the lessons learned through trial and error of green school grounds. In Malmö, project evaluators found that despite sustained interest, teachers struggled with maintenance and upkeep of schoolyards (Wales 2014). When new teachers arrive at a school, they do not always understand the goals or purposes of the schoolyard (Wales 2014). Finally, challenges emerge when following schoolyards over time. Children who were involved in initial planning do not always understand or support changes in design or maintenance of the space, including small changes such as the cutting of tall grass (Jansson et al. 2014). Similarly, new students at the schools do not always hold the same attachments to the schoolyards (Wales 2014). In Fukuoka City, the slow process and continued involvement of external project leaders over 12 years have provided support for maintenance and have eased transitions in teaching staff and administrators (Ito 2014). The continued engagement of school children in workshops and adaptations to the school ground also provides ongoing connections to the natural area, even if the same students were not involved in the initial process (Ito 2014). Malmö has recently transitioned its initiative to the elementary school system to encourage linkages between green grounds and child development and to support maintenance by schools (Wales 2014).

3.2 Schoolyard Design and Children’s Play and Learning

Concurrent to the development of initiatives to green schoolyards is an emerging body of literature articulating the relationship between schoolyard and park design and children’s play and learning. These studies have shown that green schoolyards foster more vigorous and creative play than barren schoolyards (Dyment and Bell 2008; Dyment et al. 2009; Malone and Tranter 2003) and better support socio-emotional development (Herrington and Studtmann 1998). Children’s play environments should afford a diversity of multisensory experiences that facilitate free play (Moore and Marcus, 2008).

In a recent review, Czalczynska-Podolska (2014) identified playground design elements that foster physical activity and creative play and classified them in three categories, including playground appearance, usage, and arrangement. In terms of appearance, distinct characteristics and variations in texture and color can make playgrounds recognizable, which is important for place attachment. Different levels of physical challenge and loose parts for manipulation tend to foster higher physical activity levels. Playground layouts should comprise partly enclosed intimate settings for calm and dramatic play and open lawns for active and tumble play, all connected by pathways.

Natural features can foster all of these play types in green schoolyards or parks (Czalczynska-Podolska 2014; Danks 2010; Malone and Tranter 2003). Children frequently play with natural features and loose parts, such as plants, sticks, flowers, fruits, water, and mud (Derr and Lance 2012; Moore and Wong 1997; Moore and Marcus, 2008). Children also explore a variety of spaces including small groves (Malone and Tranter 2003); open spaces and undulating hills for running, sledding, or rolling; and bushes or tall grasses for secretive play (Derr and Lance 2012). All these features have repeatedly been found to foster children’s informal play.

3.3 Children’s Participation in Design

Participation can positively contribute to children’s health and well-being across many domains. Participation increases children’s sense of competence, self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience in overcoming obstacles, and ability to communicate (Chawla and Heft 2002; Malone and Hartung 2010; Sutton and Kemp 2002). Participation also helps strengthen children’s sense of community, as they take part in a common effort with others (Hart 1997). Engagement in design processes, in particular, can help children become active citizens through participatory democracy (Chawla 2002; Sutton and Kemp 2002). Design activities also can help bridge different academic subjects (Hart 1997), support different learning styles (Lozanovska and Xu 2013), and increase spatial competence (Sutton and Kemp 2002).

Participation is also a means to create places that are meaningful for children (Hart 1997; Rigolon 2011). When children are given opportunities to shape their everyday spaces, they become places imbued with meaning and attachments (Derr 2006; Rigolon 2011). This is important because when people are involved in the creation of places, they are more likely to use and care for them (Chawla and Derr 2012). Research has also shown that children have the desire to actively care for and steward places, especially those they design or help create (Derr 2006; Malone 2013; Moore and Wong 1997; Rigolon et al. 2015). The ability to transform places is important both for children’s informal play as well as during the participatory process in order to create inviting landscapes that people care for (Astbury 2013; Derr 2006; Hart 2002; Rigolon 2011).

Participation has also been linked to the development of social capital and resilience (Astbury 2013; Chawla 2002; Freeman and Tranter 2011). Astbury (2013) describes conditions for social-ecological resilience that bring together opportunities to both understand and positively influence ecosystem services within urban environments while also developing social capital through the care and maintenance of green infrastructure. This bridge between the ecological and social components of participation in urban environments highlights important health and well-being outcomes for children.

Effective participation allows children to participate in projects of personal interest; provides opportunities for children to develop competencies in setting goals and making decisions; provides opportunity for dialogue and contribution to tangible outcomes; and provides opportunities for children, adults, and professionals to learn together and from each other (Chawla 2009; Chawla and Heft 2002; Francis and Lorenzo 2006; Freeman 2006). In a recent review of literatures linking children’s resiliency and green school grounds, Chawla and colleagues (2014) found protective factors leading to children’s resiliency including social competence, problem-solving abilities, and a sense of self-efficacy and purpose in life. Effective participation in the design of places of interest to children, such as their own school grounds, thus can be an important contributor to psychological well-being (Chawla and Heft 2002).

4 Participatory Schoolyard Design: The Horizons K-8 Playground and Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Park Project

Children’s risks today can be mitigated by green schoolyards, naturalized parks , and engagement in participatory design processes. While effective designs and methods for participation are found within the literature, less has been said about the way these designs and participatory processes have been implemented and about the policies that support their implementation. While the benefits are documented, barriers often inhibit expansion of green schoolyards as well as children’s participation in their planning and design. This section explores a number of questions related to implementation of participatory planning of green schoolyards : What are the opportunities and barriers in the implementation of schoolyards that can foster children’s informal play? How can policies facilitate the implementation of green schoolyards? And how can participatory design facilitate the creation of green schoolyards that are meaningful to children? The case of a joint-use green schoolyard and city park in Boulder, Colorado, is analyzed as an exemplary case for the convergence of state and local policies in promoting the design and construction of a setting that supports children’s informal play.

4.1 Context

The Horizons K-8 Charter School and Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Park (Burke Park) are located in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods within Boulder, Colorado. The park serves a neighborhood bounded on all sides by major freeways and roads. The two parcels are conjoined through a joint-use agreement between the City of Boulder and Boulder Valley School District. A series of changes in land use and management led to an opportunity for the two land holders to collaborate in a participatory design and planning project. Historically, the site was owned by a ranching family, who installed a stock pond. When the land was donated to the city, the stock pond became a lake amenity that was used by the neighborhood for picnicking and wildlife viewing. Over time, lake levels dropped from development and drought, and the city began the unsustainable practice of pumping treated water into the lake. While long-time residents wished to continue pumping water, the city wanted to develop a more ecologically sustainable park. At the same time, Horizons K-8 School had expanded its building, taking over the previous school playground. Both parties thus had a need for and saw opportunity in a collaborative process to design and build an innovative school ground that would bring together participatory processes with amenities to increase children’s access to informal play (Rigolon et al. 2015).

4.2 Goals and Methods

The goals of the project were to collaboratively plan the school playground and city park; to explore opportunities for nature play in the city park and school grounds; to engage children and youth with adults and professionals in planning and decision-making about the park; and to bring together diverse perspectives in the planning process, from children and parents to neighborhood residents and city staff. During the autumn of 2012, children ages 9–13 participated in playground and park design through a series of school-based activities and community meetings. Methods of engagement included drawing, found-object model-making, photogrids, a bioblitz (Fig. 1), and community workshops (Figs. 2 and 3; Rigolon et al. 2015). Growing Up Boulder, a child- and youth-friendly city initiative in Boulder, facilitated much of the participatory planning process with children (Growing Up Boulder 2014). The following semester, the project also brought in a University of Colorado (CU) Boulder undergraduate studio to design and build elements of the park identified by children and community members in the fall. Later that spring, the school and city were jointly awarded a Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grant for the construction of the school playground (Rigolon et al. 2015). Playground construction was completed 18 months later in September 2014 (Fig. 4).
Fig. 1

Students explored the wetlands and identified as many species of plants and animals as they could find (Photo Credit, Lynn M. Lickteig)

Fig. 2

Children shared their design ideas at a community open house (Photo credit, Lynn M. Lickteig)

Fig. 3

Students and senior citizens participated in a design workshop with CU students (Photo Credit, Lynn M. Lickteig)

Fig. 4

Digging and rock moving are two of the most common activities on the playground (Photo Credit, Stephen Cardinale)

4.3 Design Outcomes

Desired design outcomes included pathways through nature and high levels of biodiversity to facilitate nature play, nature observations, and mental restoration (Rigolon et al. 2015). Both senior citizens and children were interested in ungroomed wild areas to support wildlife and sensory qualities, including seasonal change. In addition, both children and seniors requested well-maintained landscape features, such as community gardens, shade arbors, and water features (Rigolon et al. 2015). Design elements were developed into a master plan by city architects and were further elaborated for the park by university students. The master plan included a dry river bed and grassy knoll within the playground, mounds (Figs. 4 and 5), diverse tree species, and biomes within the park. Additional elements requested by seniors and children, including a community garden, will be added in later phases of the project (Rigolon et al. 2015).
Fig. 5

Children run up and down the mound installations in Burke Park (Photo Credit, Victoria Derr)

4.4 Participation Outcomes

Typically, barriers to participatory planning come from a lack of institutional support, lack of value or capacity among professionals to engage with children, lack of time or resources, or failure to view children as competent participants (Cele and van der Burgt 2013; Freeman 2006). In the case of Burke Park, a supportive school curriculum, interested and supportive city agencies and community members, and an entity (Growing Up Boulder) that could facilitate community and school engagement were significant in promoting participatory planning (Rigolon et al. 2015). Faculty and student interns in the Environmental Design Program at CU Boulder helped coordinate and facilitate much of the youth engagement.

Participatory planning was important to all project partners from the outset of the project. Many involved in the Burke Park project felt that the community meetings were one of the greatest strengths of the project (Rigolon et al. 2015). Reasons cited for this include the opportunity for shared learning and visioning, understanding different needs, and the opportunity for children to present and share their ideas. As the 4th grade teacher explained, presenting their ideas to professionals and community members was empowering because it showed students that their ideas could be impactful. These findings are consistent with ideas of effective participation in the literature (Chawla 2009; Chawla and Heft 2002; Francis and Lorenzo 2006; Freeman 2006).

5 Lessons Learned

In order to learn from the Burke Park project, the authors interviewed professionals involved with the project as well as representatives from Great Outdoors Colorado and Boulder Valley School District. Interviews explored the design process and outcomes, greatest strengths from the project, lessons learned, and desired next steps (Rigolon et al. 2015). Interviews with Great Outdoors Colorado and Boulder Valley School District focused on supportive policies and challenges in implementing green schoolyards. Many of the lessons learned relate to how to improve the participatory process to increase inclusivity and translation of ideas into final designs (Rigolon et al. 2015). In this chapter, these findings are presented and analyzed for programs and policies that facilitate informal play in nature and the participatory process for schoolyard design (Table 1).
Table 1

Lessons learned from Burke Park


Key lessons

Grassroots efforts and supportive partners

Highly mobilized parent and school network willing to coordinate and maintain the space

School administration supported participatory planning and value of nature play in education

City parks department promoted nature play

Local child-friendly city initiative already established

University involvement helped create a bridge with seniors in community

State-level entity provided funding for natural play yards

Shared goals

Green play space

Community hub

Strengthened community

Participatory process

Supportive Municipal Government

Vision to promote intergenerational participatory planning for a park that promotes health and wellness

Commitment of resources through staff time and funding for park’s design-build

Willingness to experiment and promote social interactions through the process

Framework for participation

Local child-friendly city initiative based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Cities Initiative

An established partnership between municipal government, school district, and university facilitated effective participation

Shared learning about best practices in participation

Openness to shared learning

All partners open to participation and learning from each other

Starting with small scale (playground only) and expanding out to park allowed children to engage meaningfully

Slow process helped build trust and collaboration

Even more inclusive process at early and late stages of design would help all parties feel more a part of the process

State- and district-level policies

A state entity provided funding and advocacy for participatory planning and implementation of green school grounds

The state entity required all grant recipients to provide community access to playgrounds during school-designated times

The local school district had existing policies that supported playground access during nonschool hours

Desire for continued interaction

The participatory process developed community cohesion and a desire for continued collaboration and interaction

Need for shared and potentially institutionalized maintenance

5.1 Grassroots Efforts and Supportive Partners

While participatory planning for schoolyard design might take many forms, one factor of success in the Burke Park project was the level of grassroots efforts by parents and school staff that were then supported by existing programs and policies. Support for the project was provided by a highly mobilized parent network, an administration that saw the educational value of participatory planning and green schoolyards , a city parks department that is promoting nature play in its parks planning, a child-friendly city initiative that could support participatory planning, and a state-level funding entity that shared the values and goals of the community and funded the playground’s construction. Supportive programs and policies had a synergistic effect and contributed to a shared sense of purpose; shared learning among children, adults, and professionals; and a desire to enhance the natural features of the schoolyard and park (Rigolon et al. 2015). As previously described, effective participation provides a shared sense of purpose and shared learning (Chawla 2002; Francis and Lorenzo 2006). Finding the right partners and being open to the synergies and greater vision that could come from this process were critical components of success (Rigolon et al. 2015).

In the case of Burke Park, the project was initiated by a group of parents who thought the Horizons/Burke Park project would be a successful collaboration with the city’s parks department. Parents presented their vision for the project to parks staff knowing that the department had limited funds and many requests for projects. In the words of the parent representative: “We wanted to give them an opportunity they couldn’t walk away from.”

From the perspective of the city, the school and parents understood the goals and vision of the parks department, and that the city had limited resources for renovation. By being so comprehensive, it allowed the city to make the project a priority. In turn, the head of parks provided the resources and time for parks staff to go into the school, to develop partnerships, and to work with the community in a participatory way. A consulting landscape architect on the project felt that it was not only the resources but the openness to experimentation that helped facilitate the partnership: “This city, particularly the parks department, is willing and able to experiment, and the community is hungry for activities, social interactions, intergenerational collisions.”

From the perspective of the school district, active parents and school community are critical for green schoolyards. The district draws its maintenance budget from the same general fund as teacher and staff salaries and transportation. According to a senior planner for the district, this leaves virtually no funding for maintenance. In his view, the only way green schoolyards are feasible is if the parent community is actively involved and if the district provides the construction manager so that designs are translated into maintainable spaces. Clustering large rocks and vegetative features and allowing larger green spaces, for example, help streamline mowing. It was the school administration and parents’ vision that the school community would help maintain the playground and park. According to the parent representative, the “school is always looking for ways to contribute,” from weeding to planting, to installation of walkways.

The district planner mentioned many school grounds projects in which enthusiastic parents developed a project and then a few years later moved on and left the district with dilapidated greenhouses or gardens. An additional response could be to institutionalize maintenance through school-community agreements. The first author previously worked with a low-income charter school in California that requires family volunteer hours for student enrollment. The school promotes this volunteerism with evidence that student achievement is higher when families are actively engaged in school culture. The most popular volunteer activity in the school is consistently garden maintenance. In schools such as Horizons, active parental roles may be part of school culture. In other schools, this culture may need to be established and nurtured in order to sustain it.

Both the district planner and school community talked about wanting to “give back.” For the school district, this means providing access to playgrounds when there are no school functions (including after school activities). For the Horizons school community, it means helping to design and maintain school grounds for the benefit of the entire neighborhood. All partners in the project recognized the potential of the collaboration and, in so doing, were able to identify resources, through existing programs, policies, and partnerships, to support the project. The parent representative who started this process reflected, “what is great about this project is that no one person could have done this on their own.”

5.2 Shared Goals

At the outset of the project, there were many shared goals for the park. It could be a multi-generational place for children, families and grandparents. It could provide a green play space for families in the neighborhood and in the nearby public housing site, and it could be a community hub. This was further supported by the Horizons K-8 school vision in providing service to the community, learning to care for the park, learning to become good stewards of a place, and providing a space for outdoor education and independent learning. The city also saw it as a potential model for parks that promote health and wellness.

Not all community members shared these goals at the outset. The senior community had staged a 100-person sit-in to protest proposed changes to lake management in the park (Rigolon et al. 2015). They held strong memories of the lake as a manicured green space for family picnics. Yet it was the process itself that helped bring more of the school and community into this shared vision. A turning point for the seniors was when the Horizons students, city staff, and CU Boulder students all came to the retirement home for a visioning meeting (Rigolon et al. 2015). According to the retirement homes’ outreach coordinator:

Then issues of animosity started to change. After this, residents at Frasier Meadows wanted to do more activities in the park, including events for the community. It helped remind residents that the park is theirs, too, that it is for them with their families, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

While children do not always share the same needs or desires as seniors in planning (Freeman 2006), once children and seniors were brought together, there was great synchronicity between what children and other residents wanted for the park and playground (Rigolon et al. 2015). This may be in part because of the collaborative design process employed, with children and seniors both listening to and responding to each other’s desires, and in so doing, creating a more collaborative vision.

In the end, both groups expressed a desire for wild, ungroomed nature as well as for higher maintenance features such as community gardens and water features (Rigolon et al. 2015). Other participatory planning projects with children have similarly found that children seek out natural features not only for their own benefit but also for the benefit of the entire community (Moore and Wong 1997). While many have argued the importance of nature for children (e.g., Chawla et al. 2014; Kahn and Kellert 2002; Moore and Wong 1997), to the authors’ knowledge, GOCO is one of the first to use a statewide funding initiative to promote wild zones for informal play in green schoolyards. In this way, the funding entity helped crystallize shared goals already present among community partners. In reflecting on the maintenance challenges expressed by the district, a funding mechanism that would also support maintenance would be helpful in sustaining green schoolyards.

5.3 A Framework for Participation

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is significant for the health and well-being of children in all nations in that its articles promote children’s rights to safe, clean, and healthy environments, with access to free play, independent mobility, and recreation (UNICEF 2013). The convention also calls for children’s active participation and decision-making. Child-friendly city research consistently finds that children want to participate in city planning and be respected within their communities (e.g., Chawla 2002; Malone 2013).

Growing Up Boulder (GUB) is a child- and youth-friendly city initiative that began in 2009 (Derr et al. 2013). GUB is based on the methods and approaches of Growing Up in Cities (Chawla 2002; Driskell 2002) but also draws from new innovations in participatory design (Derr et al. 2013). The initiative is a partnership between the City of Boulder; Boulder Valley School District; CU Boulder’s Children, Youth, and Environments Center; and local youth-serving organizations and is institutionalized through a memorandum of understanding (Derr et al. 2013). The City of Boulder includes an engaged citizenry in its sustainability goals (City of Boulder 2010). As part of this strategy, city staff actively support and engage with children in planning activities through the Growing Up Boulder initiative.

GUB has been successful in promoting participation in projects such as Burke Park because it brings together important partners, builds competence of young people to effectively participate, and brings in-depth focus and dialogue that would not otherwise be possible to planning with children and youth. In the case of Burke Park, it accomplished this through a 4-week intensive course in which undergraduate and graduate students in environmental design, university faculty, and city staff all shared in the teaching of ecology and design. During the process, GUB also created a website to allow families, community members, and city staff to participate in the project virtually ( Updates were made almost daily (Rigolon et al. 2015). One city architect reflected on the significance of the website for the staff and broader community, remembering how he emailed hundreds of people, saying, “Look at this, look at what a school in our community is doing, look at how it is breaking down ideas of what city government is.”

While many studies provide support for children’s participation in city planning, Growing Up Boulder is one of a few initiatives in the United States that provides consistent support for this through an ongoing partnership. Having an established partnership, which is institutionalized through a formal agreement, facilitates this level of engagement for important planning projects in the city. The ongoing relationship also builds and expands the culture of participation as all partners learn and grow from experimentation and dialogue.

5.4 Openness to Shared Learning

As others have discussed, it is not enough to have institutionalized participation (Lansdown 2010). It is also important to have a willingness and understanding of the value of participation, as reflected by the Director of Parks:

Money isn’t what makes this happen, but a dedication to listening to kids, listening to the community. These techniques need to be linked to outcomes, such as the school curriculum, health and wellness.

All partners saw the value in this aspect of the process, from efficiencies of investment to the shared learning the process provided. Many felt that the slow design process, over the course of three seasons, allowed trust to form between the different partners. Starting at a small scale with children focused on the playground and then expanding to the park and community also helped. One of the teachers reflected on this as a strength of the project: during the first phase, students were given the freedom to imagine and draw from their own experiences; then students worked with two landscape architects to think more formally about playground design; and finally, the students worked with the city and community to think more broadly about different users’ needs and interests. He elaborated that “kids learned that it is great to dream, but they have to work within the realities of the project. That there has to be negotiation – you are not the only one using the space” (Rigolon et al. 2015).

In discussion of lessons learned, many participants felt that though much time was given to participatory planning, more communication at the beginning and end of the planning phase could have helped people to feel more included (Rigolon et al. 2015). The school principal also reflected on the shift in the process once the plans went to the school district (BVSD) level: “It’s important to have creative people, a democratic process on the front end, but it is also important to be aware of the limits of democratic process.”

The district was involved in reviewing plans before they were submitted to GOCO. They commented that sometimes playground plans are not detailed enough to really know what they are approving. One way BVSD has worked within this ambiguity is by providing a district construction manager. For some involved in the Burke Park project, this changed the feeling of community-engaged design to one of bureaucratic decision-making. More active dialogue and more detailed plans earlier in the process would help all parties to be engaged and in agreement.

5.5 State- and District-Level Policies

Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) receives a portion of Colorado Lottery revenue for grants and investments that support Colorado’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open space (GOCO 2014). As part of their 2010 strategic plan, GOCO sought to increase youth participation in all of its funding programs. As part of this plan, GOCO created the School Play Yard initiative as a means to provide accessible play spaces for children on a daily basis. Because GOCO uses public funding through the state lottery, all schoolyards built with GOCO funding must remain open to the public. Among the requirements for the schoolyard grants is a student design process, in which design elements should be inspired by children and users in collaboration with the community. The initiative also requires partnership with local government. Focus of the initiative is on free play. In the first and second round of funding, this included a mix of recreation and outdoor learning spaces. In the third round, emphasis was given to nature play.

GOCO has promoted Burke Park as a model project on its website. Among the factors that appealed to the review committee were the extent of student and community participation in the project and the inclusion of nature play in the design. According to GOCO, while they encourage all grantees to include nature play as a component of their designs, the Burke Park project “hit the ball out of the park,” with its playground design and adjacent naturalized park space.

5.5.1 Community Access

Many participants felt that the community-building benefits were among the most significant aspects of the project (Rigolon et al. 2015). This was reflected in statements about youth empowerment, increased caring within the community, and more positive views of the school as part of the neighborhood community. One city staff person thought that the most effective part of the project would be the end product because it would benefit so many different people in the neighborhood. She reflected that GOCO’s policy for community access was significant in pushing the boundaries for schools as community green spaces. The district planner said that access is not an issue during off-school times as this is already their policy. The district was concerned, however, with making clear when access is acceptable. For the district, access is only allowable when school is not in session and when there is no school programming. While GOCO had provided a template for signage, it took months of negotiation between the city and school district to finalize the verbiage. An important outcome was coming to an agreement about where signs could be placed and exactly what they could say. The district planner stated that this was more flexible with a charter school such as Horizons but that it would need to be more explicit for neighborhood or focus schools. Working through this process may help increase efficiency for other schools that receive GOCO funding.

5.5.2 Identifying Acceptable Risks

While GOCO encourages “wild zones” and natural playscapes, they have found that many schools are reluctant to implement these. Schools or insurance companies are concerned with perceived risks and liability of natural playscapes and of schoolyards open to community use. The Boulder Valley School District’s primary concerns were for school security. School shootings in the United States have heightened security concerns. Open schoolyards can compromise security if clear boundaries are not delineated and if unauthorized visitors can enter school grounds through an open playground. The Horizons’ playground addressed these concerns by keeping sight lines clear and avoiding vegetation, such as shrubs or low-branching trees, in which strangers could hide (Rigolon et al. 2015). This was particularly important where building edges enclose the courtyard playground.

After completion of their second funding cycle, GOCO decided to offer “GOCO University,” a daylong, free workshop that would provide Colorado schools with an opportunity to learn from those who have successfully implemented natural playscapes. Some of the lessons from Burke Park were presented at the GOCO workshop. GOCO also is looking to other entities, such as Nature Explore, which provides participatory planning in the design of green schoolyards as a service to childcare centers and schools to facilitate greater integration of nature into play yards. Nature Explore also offers workshops and conferences for educators to facilitate the use of nature playgrounds once they are built (Nature Explore 2014). Walsh (2006) suggests a balance for playspaces, one that provides soft fall surfaces where needed but also provides open-ended nature for informal play. Nature Explore playgrounds have been successful at achieving this balance. The professionals involved in Burke Park also felt this balance had been met.

5.6 Desire for Continued Collaboration

Many of those interviewed spoke of the importance of programming activities in the park in order to make it successful. Suggestions for programming included poetry walks, nature journaling, natural history, art, and music. Participants felt that the programming was necessary to activate the park and bring people to it. An ironic finding might be that in order to support informal play, some structured activities may be needed. Most participants discussed programming for the park itself more so than the playground. Their concern is that without programming there will not be spaces for “collision” of different members of the community, and the dynamic collaboration created through the participatory process might be lost.

6 Conclusion: Supportive Policies and Programs

Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child articulates the rights of children to leisure, play, and cultural life. In a recent General Comment on this article, UNICEF (2014) found support for this right lacking at local, state, and national levels, both in terms of actual provisions and in children’s participation in planning for play. They state that while focus tends to be given to supporting structured recreational activities, “equally important is the need to create time and space for children to engage in spontaneous play, recreation and creativity and to promote societal attitudes that support and encourage such activity” (193).

Informal play in nature through green school grounds provides opportunities for physical activity and development, creative play, and social negotiation. Participation in the planning and development of such places can expand children’s individual rights to participation and informal play to also include the rights of nature and future generations to a sustainable future (Davis 2014). Consideration of these rights can help foster children’s desire to care for and steward places. With a changing planet, children no longer live with the certainty of a healthy future, one with healthy ecosystems and diverse wildlife (Davis 2014). Participatory planning that allows and encourages consideration of these broader concepts of human rights and rights of nature helps reduce these risks. While UNICEF’s own comments point to concern at the lack of attention given to children’s rights to informal play, institutional frameworks, through the CRC, provide support for those municipalities or nations that wish to integrate children into planning and decision-making. The rights of children to informally play in nature has yet to be articulated clearly in the CRC. Yet mounting evidence supports this need both for the benefits it provides and the types of informal play it fosters.

The case of Burke Park illustrates how a participatory planning project can facilitate informal play in nature, through supportive policies at city, state, and international levels. The City of Boulder provides support through its sustainability goals that promote inclusivity and engaged citizenry (City of Boulder 2010). The Growing Up Boulder partnership, founded on international children’s rights frameworks, further supports young people’s participation in this process. Ongoing partnerships such as this one promote a culture of participation in planning and help build everyone’s capacity for effectiveness. A local school that similarly promotes community values in its curriculum and programs, and a school administration that is willing to work with these policies, catalyzed and sustained this project. Presence of a state-level entity that funds and promotes nature play, wild zones, and children’s and community participation in schoolyard greening further cemented the project goals and supported them financially. The Burke Park case shows the importance of grassroots initiatives (through the parent representatives) combined with supportive policies at local, state, and international levels.

As noted earlier, several successful programs and policies to increase children’s opportunities for informal play in nature have been implemented around the world in the last few decades. Many programs are now trying to increase their scope through expansion of services in cities or regions (Jansson and Mårtensson 2012), systematic identification of neighborhood green spaces and equity (Rigolon and Flohr 2014), or the development of guidelines to increase project-level implementation (Moore and Cooper 2014). Similarly, Boulder’s Parks and Recreation department has used Burke Park as a model to facilitate the creation of other joint-use green schoolyards in the city (Rigolon et al. 2015). Following the Horizons K-8 GOCO grant, another Boulder school was awarded a GOCO grant and will soon open a naturalized shared-use playground. This shows the importance of pilot projects that potentially expand programming to a more comprehensive scale. Finally, some programs and policies launched in England and Australia are encouraging because they attempt to broaden children’s domains for play and exploration from institutionalized spaces to entire neighborhoods and cities (e.g., Greater London Authority 2012; Nature Play WA, 2014; Play Australia 2010; Play England 2007).

Opportunities that promote children’s resiliency include access to free play, ability to independently roam, and ability to meaningfully contribute to their neighborhoods and cities through participatory processes. A risk-averse environment can limit these opportunities for children. Wild zones in cities are a less explored and developed design concept but critically important for children to informally access nature. Some have described such places as inviting landscapes that are open-ended, attractive to multiple ages, and sensory rich (Astbury 2013; Walsh 2006). Needs and interests may vary by age and developmental stage (e.g., Chawla et al. 2014), but types of uses are often complementary and frequently provided in green schoolyards . From child to senior, participants in the Burke Park project have suggested that these are not so disparate or hard to achieve. The challenge is in the listening.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Program in Environmental DesignUniversity of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of Urban Studies and PlanningCalifornia State University, NorthridgeLos AngelesUSA

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