The Schoolyard is Sick

This article is also available in Spanish.

The design of school grounds is being rethought for many reasons. Claire Latane wants improving students’ mental health to be one of them.

By Jane Margolies

Not long ago, the schoolyard of Eagle Rock Elementary, in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, was a sea of cracked asphalt. Now it has rows of budding trees that divide up the three-acre expanse, and there’s a large grassy area and little enclaves with stumps and log seating away from the hustle and bustle. By offering a variety of settings, the schoolyard gives students the ability to choose where and how they spend their time at recess. Claire Latané, ASLA, the Los Angeles-based ecological designer who led the renovation of the grounds, says it also should improve their mental health.

Latané believes supporting the mental health of students is key to their happiness and well-being. Her conviction is based on decades of academic research by others, her own experience analyzing and designing schoolyards, and her gut feeling about the topic, as both a designer and a mother. Despite all we know about the impact our surroundings have on us—and the progress being made to introduce therapeutic environments to health care facilities—schools aren’t being designed with mental health as a consideration, let alone a priority. They are defensive (and ever more so, even provisionally, given gun violence in schools). Many schools have as much charm as storage facilities these days, and the worst are, in their environmental design, practically penal.

Through advocacy, writing, and teaching, Latané is trying to change that reality. She has encouraged the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the country—and where her own children were students—as it rethinks its practice of laying down asphalt everywhere. With a fellowship from the Landscape Architecture Foundation, she investigated supportive high school landscapes, presenting her findings at a symposium in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2018. In the fall, she organized a workshop in Los Angeles that brought together landscape architects with educators, mental health professionals, and school facilities managers—parties who typically don’t do much talking to each other, which was the whole point.

Unstructured play, including games of tag, are popular on the new lawn. Photo by Edmund Barr.

“It’s like a neural network—the more people you can connect, the more possibilities to make an impact,” she said during a day I spent with her in Los Angeles recently. “One of my biggest strengths is not doing the work itself but in connecting this person to this person.”

Her goal is to start a movement. And one task for that movement will be to nail down evidence that the work she and others have done to redesign school grounds and buildings has measurable mental health benefits for students. And that includes kids struggling with mental illness—something she says most people are not comfortable talking about.

“There’s still such a stigma,” she says.

Latané has had first-person experience with that. A native of Columbus, Ohio, who attended public schools as a child, she went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but had to take a year off between her sophomore and junior years to deal with depression. After graduating with a degree in mass communication, she got married and moved with her husband to a remote part of Appalachia, where she worked at a local newspaper.

Relocating to the outskirts of Charlotte, the couple had three children—all of whom have had their own mental health issues—and Latané became irritated that public spaces weren’t easier to negotiate, especially for a mother with youngsters in tow. After writing a letter to the town council proposing a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over a highway that bisected the town, she found herself appointed to a variety of local advisory boards—transportation, parks, and environmental code review—and the experiences heightened her interest in the public sphere. She discovered Anne Whiston Spirn’s 1985 book, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, and it crystallized her thinking.

“I’d never even heard of landscape architecture before,” Latané recalls. But Spirn’s argument that cities are a part of nature and should be designed with nature in mind rang true to a mother who had one son with asthma and eczema and another so hyperactive the only place he seemed to be happy was outside. “It became a mission for me at that time in life to have a voice and find a way to make the world healthier for kids.”

Soon she moved her family cross-country so she could get her master’s in landscape architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, a school that attracted her because of its focus on ecological design and planning. After obtaining her degree in 2006, Latané took a job at EPTDESIGN in Pasadena and worked on gardens and an adventure playground, among other projects.

She ended up settling with her kids in Eagle Rock, a neighborhood in a valley next to the Verdugo Hills. It is walkable and affordable, and the schools were said to be good. (She and her husband divorced, and he returned to North Carolina; their children have gone back and forth.) Eagle Rock Elementary certainly looked promising when she drove by, the main building a 1920s structure with ochre stucco walls and a red tile roof. Giant pine trees shaded the facade, which was skirted in lawn.

But the school’s curb appeal was deceiving. On the first day of the fall term, when Latané walked her older children around to the back of Eagle Rock Elementary, where students assembled before filing in, they encountered wall-to-wall asphalt. Painted lines demarcated two kickball “fields,” one of them encircled by track lanes. There was a tetherball pole and a couple of handball courts. More paint marked off areas for hopscotch, four square, and dodgeball. With the exception of a few trees poking up through the asphalt, there was nothing of the natural world to be found.

“I was shocked,” she recalls.

Before the renovation, the yard was wall-to- wall asphalt. Photo courtesy Studio-MLA.

It’s not hard to understand why laying down asphalt has been the default approach, especially in underfunded public school districts. It’s cheap. It’s easy to maintain. A flat terrain facilitates supervision. When the Council for Watershed Health, a nonprofit group based in Pasadena, and the Center for Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University did a study of schoolyards in Los Angeles that was published in 2015, they found that 20 percent of schools in the district were sitting in asphalt without any tree canopy coverage.

All that asphalt can be problematic for many reasons, but especially in poor areas where students suffer from mental distress in greater proportions than their more affluent peers. Los Angeles area students, Latané has written, experience high levels of instability and stress related to air and noise pollution, family trauma, and poverty. Screenings of a segment of the school population of nearly 700,000 suggest that 50 percent of students in the district may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. A just-announced allocation of $10 million from Los Angeles County for school-based mental health services is a recognition of the problem. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of LAUSD’s students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. These aren’t kids likely to live in homes with nice yards or proximity to parks.

Such students—along with those who have attention deficit, sensory integration, and autism spectrum disorders—are hypersensitive to noise, light, and visual disarray. What they need—and Latané insists they deserve—is “a well-organized, comfortable, calm environment, plenty of access to nature, and small quiet places to escape chaos.” Such an environment, she points out, can benefit all students in a school and teachers and administrators as well.

Claire Latané, ASLA, has advocated for students’ mental health to be considered when school landscapes are planned. She led the Eagle Rock project while at Studio-MLA. Photo by Brian Kuhlmann.

In 2009, while teaching an undergraduate course in landscape design at Cal Poly Pomona, she had her students use Eagle Rock’s schoolyard as a case study. Her students taught third graders about ecological design and asked them to sketch the things they would like in their schoolyard. The undergrads incorporated some of the children’s ideas in a green infrastructure plan that they presented to parents, teachers, and the principal.

When the principal declined to make changes, Latané thought that was that. Then, in 2010, after her own children had already left Eagle Rock Elementary, she got a call.

On the line was Amanda Millet, a parent with two sons, who had heard about the presentation Latané’s students had made. Millet told her that Eagle Rock had a new principal who was open to ideas, and that the state had funding for projects to address stormwater management. Eagle Rock is in a floodplain, and replacing asphalt with permeable surfaces—which Latané’s students had proposed—met the grant requirements. Latané got together with Millet, who had experience writing grants, and other parents, and ultimately, with assistance from an environmental group that agreed to serve as the nonprofit partner in the project should it be funded, an application was submitted. In 2012, $350,000 from the state was secured.

It took another three years for LAUSD to agree to accept the money, in part because of concerns about conditions the state imposed on the funding and also because, at the time, the district was not accustomed to working with third-party partners on projects on its properties. By the time it did say yes and the nonprofit group (now called Los Angeles Beautification Team) contacted Mia Lehrer’s landscape architecture firm in Los Angeles (now Studio-MLA) to see if it would take on the schoolyard redesign, Latané had taken a job there.

“Good karma,” she says.

Placed in charge of the project, Latané coordinated with LAUSD to ensure that the redesign would meet physical education requirements, she listened to the concerns of teachers and other Eagle Rock staff, and she collaborated with parents at the school—some of whom brought valuable expertise to the table. One of them, Bevin Ashenmiller, an environmental economics professor at Occidental College, enlisted the help of an Occidental colleague, Marcella Raney, a kinesiology professor who visited the school with her students and observed the children at recess. The input—about which areas of the yard were popular and should be preserved, and which were underused and might be rethought—was crucial to the design evolution.

Ground was broken in June 2016, with LAUSD removing 19,000 square feet of asphalt and installing irrigation mainlines; the Los Angeles Beautification Team orchestrated much of the rest. By that fall the renovation was complete.

Green space was added to the center of the yard; rows of trees flank it, breaking up the vast expanse. Image by Studio-MLA.

Latané and I stood on the schoolyard with Stephanie Leach, the current principal, who spoke of the community’s pride in the new space, which has also become the pride of the school district. “A lot of district administrators come through and say they don’t see this type of play at other schools,” she said, referring to kids doing cartwheels and playing tag on the grass.

The asphalt that remains now has a tan climate coating to reduce heat retention and radiation, which benefits students and staff and also newly planted oaks. The trees subdivide the yard into areas meant to feel more manageable to children who might find vast expanses overwhelming—and, over time, they will provide increasing amounts of shade.

The small, self-contained areas on the periphery give children places to escape from the competitive atmosphere of sports and the general din of recess at a school with several hundred students. Kids can hop from stump to stump or just hang out.

“Design-wise, it’s weird,” Latané admitted, as she and I walked over to the grass area—essentially a rectangle (one of the formerly asphalt kickball fields) with a circle ballooning out of one corner of it (covering an area where underused four square and dodgeball had been). “But experience-wise, it’s so much better. It works from a student perspective.”

Raney, who visited again after the new yard was installed to collect additional data, confirmed as much. The grassy areas, she and her students observed, allowed children whose previous recess options had been limited to traditional playground games and organized sports to explore other forms of play. Sedentary behavior decreased, vigorous activity increased, and girls generally became more active. Meanwhile, student physical and verbal conflicts declined.

Eagle Rock students are not only exposed to plants at recess, but they now see more greenery through classroom windows. Still, what impact, if any, the yard’s transformation may have on students’ mental health—Latané’s prime concern—remains a question. No studies had been set up before the renovation to track whether students feel happier or safer or less stressed post-renovation (student privacy concerns typically make such studies difficult). En route to a nearby elementary school, which still sits surrounded by asphalt, Latané admits she regrets the missed opportunity.

There was more green space outside the schoolyard than in. Image by Studio-MLA.

And yet considerable scholarly research suggests that a schoolyard transformation can have enormous impact. Latané delved into the research on high schools—her current focus—during her Landscape Architecture Foundation fellowship.

She reviewed half a century’s worth of studies, starting with those by the psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, who found that the sight of leaves rustling in trees, grasses rippling in the wind, and sunlight glinting off water reduces heart rate and stress and restores attention.

In subsequent decades, William Sullivan, ASLA, a professor and the head of the landscape architecture department at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor correlated access to nature with higher test scores, improved social cohesion, higher self-esteem, and a deeper sense of community. Rodney Matsuoka, during his PhD studies at the University of Michigan, showed that trees and shrubs and larger classroom windows related to reduced violence, vandalism, and disorderly conduct, while wide-open sports courts and fields were associated with student crime and bullying.

The very chemistry of the brain, Latané learned, helps explain why teenagers are susceptible to stress—and why supportive high school environments are crucial. Adults and teens, it seems, possess a hormone called tetrahydropregnanolone, but whereas in adults the hormone modulates anxiety, in teens it amplifies it. A chaotic, noisy environment, such as those found in many urban high schools, may be something an adult can take in stride; teens, on the other hand, may feel anxious.

Searching for schools that prioritized mental health, Latané found few that could serve as role models. The best, she says, are in Berlin, which has been transforming schoolyards to both manage stormwater and reduce student stress and aggression. Whereas most Los Angeles schools maintain open schoolyards, Berlin schoolyards feature small, sheltered gathering places where students can sit alone or with friends. Latané also liked George C. Marshall High School in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, which has large windows opening its library and classrooms to light and views of trees.

Los Angeles was another story. School campuses that once may have had open entries and lush landscaping have deteriorated, burdened by more students than they were designed to accommodate, shrinking maintenance budgets, and security concerns. Chain-link fencing is everywhere, Latané says.

Eagle Rock High School, which Latané and I also visited, is a case in point. A charming Spanish-style building with a welcoming entrance once sat on the site of the current school. After that earlier structure suffered earthquake damage, it was replaced in 1970 with a Brutalist main building said to have been designed by a prison architect. It has heavy cement walls. Windows are covered by grates, boarded up, or made foggy with UV film. From the inside, it is nearly impossible to see out. So much for catching sight of leaves fluttering in the wind.

Meanwhile, outdoor areas are mostly covered in asphalt or devoted to sports fields. At lunchtime, when students are outdoors, the sound echoing off all the hard surfaces is almost deafening.

Latané says the problem is not just with older schools, either. LAUSD recently spent $20 billion to build 131 new schools—some by highly regarded architects—to address overcrowding, among other issues. But she believes the new schools “prioritize abstract architectural statements” over “student comfort, mental health, and well-being.” They were designed with secure entries and vandal-proof materials, even though such things run counter to all the research done by scholars about what actually reduces crime, disorderly conduct, stress, and anxiety.

“The research,” Latané said in her Landscape Architecture Foundation presentation, “hasn’t left the academy.”

School shootings in recent years have caused administrators across the country to clamp down even more. Security cameras are brought in and fences go up, despite the fact that there is no evidence, Latané says, that such measures keep students safe, let alone help them feel safe.

Students gather in the Eagle Rock Elementary yard before school. Photo by Edmund Barr.

But there is progress. LAUSD, which now holds up Eagle Rock Elementary’s schoolyard as a model, says it is committed to greening its schools. The district recently hired a landscape architect with a district-wide purview—Ruben Valenzuela, the first to hold this position in years—and seeks in paving projects to put back 30 percent less impermeable surface. Some schools have gardens. One has a million-dollar greenhouse.

In other places around the country, “living schoolyards,” as they are often called, are being developed. In San Francisco, where the Berkeley-based group Green Schoolyards America has been effective, the city has a green schoolyard manager, and 90 percent of the schools have some green elements in their grounds. And there are signs of a shift from an asphalt-based schoolyard model to a green-focused model in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities. The shift has been occurring gradually over the last couple of decades, but what’s different in recent years, says Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America, “is a switch from demonstration-scale projects that a PTA can pull off with $10,000 to $2 million green infrastructure projects.”

Lately Latané has been zeroing in on Eagle Rock High, hoping to bring about changes there just as she did at Eagle Rock Elementary. She is analyzing the results of a survey she distributed to students to help understand what would make them feel safer and happier in school. She, Ashenmiller, and Raney are looking for grants that will let them design and build more green schoolyards with mental health in mind—“so we can have a real solid test of what works and what doesn’t work,” Latané says.

While continuing to teach in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where she was recently appointed assistant professor, she is working on a book for Island Press that will summarize her findings. It is a “tool kit” to design schools to support mental health, she explains—and “a call to action.”

Jane Margolies is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. She recently wrote for Landscape Architecture Magazine about Park Rx America and the movement to prescribe walks in the park to patients.

Project Credits

Landscape Architect Studio-MLA, Los Angeles. Civil Engineering City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation Watershed Protection Division, Los Angeles (Alice Gong, Carmen Andrade). Client Los Angeles Beautification Team, Los Angeles. Owner Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles. Construction Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles. Soil Prep, Planting, Irrigation Los Angeles Beautification Team, Los Angeles. Reclaimed Wood Seating and Installation Woodhill Firewood, Irvine, California. Boulders Southwest Boulder & Stone, Fallbrook, California. Native Plants Moosa Creek Nursery, Valley Center, California. Trees (including trees funded by Eagle Rock Elementary Foundation and PTA) BrightView, Orange, California. Lawn West Coast Turf, Palm Desert, California. Irrigation Equipment Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California (Jason Wan, ASLA). Maintenance Eagle Rock Elementary Education Foundation and Eagle Rock Elementary PTA, Los Angeles.

2 thoughts on “The Schoolyard is Sick”

  1. One thing that I’ve thought about for years, living in Los Angeles, and driving past these vast asphalt lots next to schools, is why the LAUSD cannot incorporate affordable housing into the schoolyard. We could have a European kind of setting near our schools with buildings that looked out onto trees and grass, and it might also help protect both the residents who would reside in these apartments and the children who were playing nearby. If you added, say 60 Senior Citizen apartments to an elementary schoolyard in Encino or Sherman Oaks or Reseda, you would introduce a healthy mix of ages and incomes into a school. The apartments might also help finance education if the land were sold off to a private developer working in conjunction with the city government.

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