Alhambra Unified School District’s Elementary Schools: Taxpayers Invest in Outdoor Spaces to Benefit Children
by Kay Sales, ASLA

“…[C]hildren are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make the top of any conservationist’s list of endangered species if they were any other member of the animal kingdom….” Tim Gill (2005)1 

According to a report published in The New England Journal of Medicine,2  for the first time in two centuries, the current generation of children in America may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. The rapid rise in childhood obesity, if left unchecked, could shorten life spans by as much as five years. How can we as landscape architects help the next generation? Should our profession be doing more by actively creating spaces for children to go outside and play, get involved in sports, and experience nature?

One school district in Southern California decided that updating their schoolyards was long overdue. Last year, the residents of the Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD) approved a $50 million bond to modernize and update each of the 13 elementary schools in the district. While every school had different requirements, the one overriding concern was the poor outdoor spaces. Each school had inadequate kindergarten playgrounds with outdated or no climbing structures, poor sports facilities, asphalt as far as the eye could see, and no shade. The excellent Southern California weather and the large outdoor spaces meant that there were untapped opportunities for getting children outside and active.

Alhambra 1

Brightwood Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Siegel, ASLA

The school district charged Swire Siegel Landscape Architects, in collaboration with Elemental Landscapes, with developing and designing master plans for each site. Ronnie Siegel, ASLA, the principal of the firm, has a special interest in designing for children and feels that immersing them in nature encourages children's natural creativity and curiosity, and promotes physical fitness and health while at the same time strengthening their innate bonds with the natural world.

Swire Siegal and the architecture firm, ML Architecture, developed a mission statement for the master plans stating that “[f]or a diverse group of children with varying interests, designs that promote a variety of experiences in a safe environment will increase learning and decrease boredom and conflict.”

Once the stakeholders (teachers, children and parents) identified common issues and interests, the design team worked with the school district to define the existing problems and then assess the opportunities, benefits, and elements needed for success.

Enrollment at each school can range from 700 to 1,000 children, so it was of paramount importance to create landscapes with a rich diversity of learning and play opportunities for large numbers of children. By supporting a wider variety of student interests and abilities, children naturally become more physically active. While the schools required new sports courts for their physical education programs, not all children want to spend their recess time playing competitive sports. Therefore, it was important to design natural areas where children could still jump, climb, dig, build, role-play, and generally get moving in ways that nurture all aspects of their health and development.

To foster a connection with the natural world and make children aware of their regional environment, native plant gardens were important elements in the master plan, and these spaces were integrated in and around the school yards. They provide nature learning opportunities and restful, sensory environments in which children can gather and socialize.

The AUSD is a member of the Network for a Healthy California, a Los Angeles Unified School District program which is part of a statewide movement of local, state, and national partners that are collectively working toward improving the health status of low-income Californians through increased fruit and vegetable consumption and daily physical activity. The school campuses will include vegetable gardens, have enough space for a class to gather, and are intended to be widely used by all grades when implemented. Through education, children can begin to make more informed dietary choices, understand where food comes from, and develop relationships with community organizations or non-profits for help with the gardens.

Many staff requested class and grade size gathering spaces so outdoor projects could then become an important part of the curriculum. Studies have shown that these spaces and projects improve academic performance, increase enthusiasm for teaching, and reduce discipline and classroom management problems.3 

Alhambra 2
Brightwood Elementary School Master Plan. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Siegel, ASLA

Rethinking existing bleak kindergarten yards created an opportunity to design spaces that supported small and large motor development and cognitive development, promoted problem solving and creativity, and fostered a connection with the natural world. The challenge was to make better use of the space by organizing a greater variety of activities to prevent conflicts and provide more safety and easier supervision.

According to the Great Schools Web site, AUSD currently has a district rating of 7 out of a possible high of 10, based on test results.  A recent study in Australia 4 explored research that established credible grounds for doctors to “prescribe” contact with nature for various diseases, and for parks to be considered a national health resource. Among the findings is that children with a greener playground had better attention scores in the classroom after playing outside.

The question is how the greening the Alhambra school grounds will affect the children’s attention scores, and ultimately the schools’ district ratings. It will be very interesting to see. Watch this space!

Kay Sales is an Associate at Swire Siegel Landscape Architects, La Canada, California and can be reached at:

End notes:

1 Gill, Tim. “Let Our Children Roam Free.” The Ecologist, September 23, 2005.

2 Olshansky, et al. "The Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century," The New England Journal of Medicine, March 17, 2005, Volume 352: 1138-1145 No. 11.

3 Raffan, James, “Nature Nurtures: Investigating the Potential of School Grounds,”  2000. 

4 O’Connor, Thea, “Australians Study Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 21, 2008.

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