Nature-rich areas on schoolgrounds have the potential to increase children's interaction with nature, which has proven benefits for children. However, the use of natural areas on schoolgrounds is not guaranteed. This study investigated ways in which the physical make-up of schoolyards may interact with teacher and student-related factors to predict use of natural elements on schoolyards.
Researchers calculated the amount of non-impervious surfaces at nine schools in Raleigh, North Carolina to represent the amount of green space on the school grounds. They also recorded the presence and absence of four outdoor space types of at each of the schools. Two of the types -- gardens and woodlands -- represented nature-rich green spaces; the other two -- playgrounds and athletic fields -- represented traditional outdoor spaces. A survey was used to collect information from students and teachers about their awareness of the different types of outdoor spaces at their schools, how the students were using their schoolyards, and what factors might influence their use. Responses from 14 teachers and 199 students in grades 3-6 in the participating schools were used in the data analysis.
Three of the nine schools had woodlands on their grounds; six had gardens. All nine of the schools had athletic fields, and eight schools had playgrounds. The average green space on the schoolgrounds was close to 60%. Of the different outdoor space types, students were most aware of playgrounds and athletic fields on their schoolgrounds. In schools with gardens, less than 70% of students were aware gardens existed; and in schools with woodlands, less than 30 % of the students were aware the woodlands existed. Students spent far less time in natural areas (once a month) than the traditional outdoor areas (several times a week). The biggest factors affecting student use of the natural areas related to teachers. Teachers taking children outdoors frequently increased the likelihood that students would be aware of gardens on the schoolgrounds. Teacher professional development in environmental education was positively linked to use of natural areas by students and of students seeing woodlands as a good place to learn. Teachers were more aware than students of the different green space types on their schoolgrounds. Almost all teachers knew if their schools had gardens, playgrounds, and athletic fields. Only 66.7% of the teachers were aware if their school had a woodland. Not surprisingly, outdoor activities with the lowest frequency were exploring woodlands, with this occurring less than once or twice a year. Spending time in gardens occurred less than once a month, with girls using the gardens slightly more than boys. Boys tended to play sports more than girls. The oldest students (6th graders) reported the lowest frequency of nature-based activities, with this occurring less than once or twice a year.
These results show that simply providing nature-rich areas in schoolyards cannot guarantee the use of natural spaces by children and teachers. The existence, awareness, and use of natural areas on school grounds are significantly lower than for traditional schoolyard features. However, teachers can play an important role in unlocking the benefits that do exist on school grounds. Teacher professional development is critical to supporting teachers in that effort.