Schoolyard Naturalization

Schoolyard naturalization projects involve converting hardscaped schoolyard play surfaces into more engaging, living landscapes. Naturalization efforts typically include planting native species and can also incorporate vegetable gardens. Naturalization areas can be can also be used for hands-on learning and as outdoor classroom space.

Recommended Practices

Creating more benevolent spaces. There is a tremendous opportunity to naturalize portions of schoolyards to create more inviting and comfortable places for students.

Creating natural spaces. Establishing pockets of nature in a schoolyard provides an opportunity for young people to experience and enjoy interacting with the natural world.

Living laboratories for learning. Naturalized areas can serve as “living laboratories” to engage students in experiential learning about plants, animals, insects, ponds, the water cycle and much more. They can also be explicitly designed to provide spaces for students to grow their own plants and incorporate topics from the school curriculum..

Outdoor classrooms. Designing amphitheatre-style outdoor classrooms can provide an enjoyable way for students and teachers to learn together.

Project Considerations

Maintenance requirements of these outdoor spaces need to be planned for carefully as they may initially be higher than a grass monoculture or hardscape. There are many strategies to lower maintenance requirements, including choosing hardy, drought-tolerant plants that require little to no watering once established and using shredded-bark mulch to suppress weeds and maintain soil moisture. Students can also be engaged with the maintenance of the site and, in doing so, have the opportunity to become invested in its success. Since the bulk of summer maintenance happens when school is out, schools may need to contract work to a landscaping firm or schedule groups of local students and parents to care for gardens and other plants for a week at a time during the summer.

The Business Side

Costs for schoolyard naturalization projects vary widely and depend on the individual project. Cost considerations may include some of the following:

  • Size of the project area
  • If existing play apparatus will require removal
  • If existing structures may be reused (e.g., old wood from playground materials could be refurbished into benches of walking paths for the area)
  • Variety of native plants, trees, and shrubs to be included
  • Condition of the soil (e.g., some soil may need to be replaced in order to support plant growth)
  • Inclusion of a wetland area
  • Increased safety features, especially if a small water body is to be included

Although the initial costs of naturalizing a schoolyard may be more than maintaining the existing play surfaces, there is the potential for decreased yard maintenance costs over the long term, as natural areas will not need to be mowed.

The Nature Side

The benefits of schoolyard naturalization can include increased wildlife habitat and support for pollinators, greenhouse gas sequestration, decreased urban heat island effects, groundwater infiltration and recharge and increased biodiversity. Naturalized schoolyard space can also be connected to other natural areas to create contiguous green space networks.

The Community Side

Naturalized schoolyards provide an opportunity to put students back in touch with nature and address the issue of “nature deficit disorder.” Outdoor classrooms help students learn how food is grown and are more intellectually stimulating places for children to play. This example of NBS can also benefit other members of the community who could use the space outside of school hours and there are health benefits to having natural green and blue (water) spaces visible and accessible to the public in the neighbourhood. Proximity to green space and naturalized areas increases property values for home owners and developers alike.

Louv, R. 2005. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books.

Morton, D., Cameron, T., & Hayes, J. 2015. The Learning Grounds: Guide for Schools. Evergreen Canada.

Primeau, S., Bell, M., Riopel, M., Ewaschuk, E., & Doell, D. 2009. Green Communities Guide: Tools to Help Restore Ecological Processes in Alberta’s Built Environments. Land Stewardship Centre of Canada.