Last year I visited my Aunt’s class at an early childhood development school in Louisville. I went to discuss edible gardening with the students and planned to teach them about growing fruits and vegetables in their own back yard. My intention was to inspire young minds, however I think I was the one that was the most moved. You see, the school’s campus was missing something important not only for edible gardening, but also for wellbeing in general: greenspace.
Across the United States, public schools serve more than 50 million children every day. Public school districts are some of America’s largest landowners and schoolyards are some of our most extensively used public spaces. They host students during the day, accommodate recreational games and gatherings in the evening and offer green infrastructure for cities, but unfortunately school grounds are often given the least attention. While there’s been conversation about greener schoolyards for some time now, my visit to that early childhood development school was the first time it clicked for me. I saw an opportunity to transform asphalt into ecosystems that not only enhance children’s learning and play, but also contribute to the health and resilience of our communities.
As fate would have it, not long after I visited my Aunt’s school I was connected with Lauren Niemann, an environmental science teacher at Louisville’s Fern Creek High School. Fern Creek’s landscaping had been stripped away over the years, largely due to the time and money associated with necessary maintenance. Lauren invited me to join her class in planning, designing and planting a rain garden to breathe life back into the campus.
Alongside two other specialists, I spent three days helping students navigate the project. A representative from Louisville Metro Sewer District taught the class about managing stormwater, while a local horticulturalist covered the aesthetics and ecology of the garden’s soil and plant materials. I taught the students how to draw to scale, program their garden for accessibility and drainage, and layer plant forms, textures and colors. Once the teams completed their designs I helped combine them into one cohesive rain garden. Then the students ordered their plants and prepped the plot, and this fall we worked together to bring their vision to life.
Fern Creek High School’s new rain garden doesn’t simply add value to the campus’ appearance—the project added value to the students’ educational experience. Together we bridged the gap between theory and practice while also learning how trees impact climate change, why wildlife habitats help preserve biodiversity and what tools are available for sustainably managing stormwater runoff.
Since completing Fern Creek High School’s raingarden, we’ve started discussions with a local non-profit organization about “de-paving” parts of the campus. Our hope is to remove sections of asphalt in an overflow parking lot near the raingarden and fill the space with trees instead. The foliage will increase the tree canopy and provide shade, while the plant beds will provide a natural filter for controlling stormwater.
The best part of it all? The raingarden and de-paving project are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to campus improvements. For example, benches and natural seating areas can serve as classroom and community gathering spaces and safe play equipment and playing fields can promote physical activity.
I know greener schoolyards aren’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take expertise from public and private partners working at the school, community and district levels, as well as support from policy makers and funding partners. I’m up for the challenge though, because Fern Creek High School is showing me how small steps can improve public space. If we all commit to taking small steps, one day they may add up to big results and ultimately improve health, education and connection in our communities.