Renovating schoolyards to include outdoor learning spaces and natural play areas may be one way to provide increased access to green spaces in urban environments. Research shows that children with access to such spaces tend to engage in higher levels of physical activity and positive social interactions with peers. This study extends previous research by examining positive youth development outcomes of renovated, green schoolyards in low-income urban areas and the maintenance of these outcomes over time. This study also examined teachers' and caregivers' thoughts on how renovated schoolyards may lead to safer spaces, fewer injuries, less bullying, and less gang-related activity.
This study focused on three recently renovated yards (two in 2014 and one in 2015) at K-8 elementary schools in three different neighborhoods on the south and west sides of Chicago, Illinois (US). Each of the three schools served children from low-income and racially marginalized backgrounds. The 2014 schoolyard renovations were supported by the Space to Grow initiative which renovates schoolyards in underserved communities to support health, education, and connection to nature. Researchers conducted schoolyard observations at three points during the spring and fall of 2016 using behavioral mapping methodology which allowed for direct observation of individual children to code their different types of activity and behaviors. Researchers also collected self-administered survey data from teachers and caregivers during the spring of 2016 and 2017 which inquired about their perceptions of safety, injury, teasing, bullying, and gang-related activities on the renovated schoolyard.
Results indicate that the renovated schoolyards may have contributed to reduced amounts of inactive behavior over time and more positive social interactions. Teachers believed the renovated schoolyards were safer and incurred less bullying, teasing, injuries, and gang-related activity than the schoolyards prior to renovation. Younger students (grades K-4) and males tended to be more active than older students (grades 5-8) and females, respectively, especially in movements such as kicking, throwing, and bending. No significant difference was found in the types of social interactions between males and females.
This research suggests that urban green spaces, in the form of renovated schoolyards with natural play spaces, may foster physical activity and prosocial behavior among underserved children. Ensuring that more schoolyards incorporate green spaces may be particularly important in urbanizing settings, where the distribution of green space is not equitable.