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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Penny Leigh Sebring

Multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of children spending time in nature. Exposure to green spaces offers proven advantages for early learners in terms of attention, memory, and focus, as well as mental health. This research indicates that incorporating greenery into our children’s daily lives is incredibly valuable for their cognitive development.

Unfortunately, though, urban areas were often developed without regard for natural areas—a lack often mirrored on school campuses dominated by concrete and asphalt. This is particularly true in financially disadvantaged and industrial areas. 

Happily, new opportunities to interact with nature are springing up all over the place. Many public libraries offer a limited number of free or low-cost tickets to botanical gardens and zoos, while neighborhoods are reclaiming vacant areas to create open spaces and community gardens. And more and more communities are embracing the idea of increasing green spaces and natural areas for learning and reflection at schools themselves. 

If greening schools sounds good to you, read on for ways to advocate for them in your community. After all, most children spend much of their time at school, so bringing greenery and growth on campus is a powerful way to ensure they get the nature they need.  

How to Advocate for More Green Spaces at Schools

Many people are unaware of the benefits of green spaces for cognitive development. This makes information sharing an incredibly valuable way to advocate for green spaces. Sharing articles and research studies about the issue will enlighten more people to the need. 

Parents can bring up the subject at PTA meetings or arrange appointments to talk to school administrators about exchanging concrete and blacktop for lush, green playgrounds with trees and grass.

While there’s no doubt that one individual can make a difference, a group of individuals working for the same goal tends to be more effective and efficient. Fortunately, many government agencies and nonprofit organizations are already striving for a greener and more nature-filled future. 

Some, such as federal and state environmental protection agencies, are focused on big-picture areas that affect children incidentally, like clean air and water. Others, such as Green Schoolyards America and Space to Grow Chicago, have narrower concentrations, such as adding greenery to school campuses.

Here is a small selection of organizations that are working towards a greener world and greener schoolyards. Check them out for ways to get involved or inspiration for your local efforts.

The Trust for Public Lands Community Schoolyards Campaign

The Trust for Public Lands has been protecting natural areas and creating parks since the early 1970s. Their mission is to ensure that everyone has access to nature and outdoor activities—a difficult task given the rate of urban sprawl. 

Get involved: One of the ways that the Trust for Public Lands is changing the landscape is by transforming schoolyards made of concrete and steel into playgrounds and parks with grass and trees. Their website lists several ways to support the Trust for Public Lands, including local campaigns, becoming a member, or making a donation.

Green Schoolyards America

Green Schoolyards America supports the idea of living school grounds: changing asphalt-covered playgrounds into living environments with grass and trees. Along with transforming schoolyards, they also co-founded the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, helping many schools to safely reopen faster by using outdoor spaces. 

Get involved: Parents and school administrators can advocate for green spaces by employing the group’s techniques to help enhance their schoolyard or by donating to Green Schoolyards America.

Children and Nature Network

The Children and Nature Network is an organization built on the belief that wild places and the healthy development of children are inextricably linked. The group envisions a future in which all children—regardless of race, religion, or financial status—have access to the green spaces that are so valuable for mental and emotional development.  

Get involved: People can support the group either by donating funds or by becoming a member of the Children and Nature Network.

Advocacy by Children, for Children

As parents, advocating for our children helps ensure they have more options and opportunities available to them, and it also shows them that we, as parents, value their wellbeing and are willing to stand up for them. Teaching our children to advocate for themselves provides them with these same benefits and more.  

Self-advocacy, or the ability to effectively communicate one’s needs, is a skill that can help our children thrive throughout their lives, not only in their education and career but also in their personal lives. Learning to successfully advocate for themselves and others is empowering and may help improve their self-esteem and resilience. 

For the youngest children, this might look like drafting a family Bill of Rights, participating in Earth Day activities, or—yes—advocating for greening their school campus. Little ones might spot unused areas that could be transformed into something living. Parents can help young school-aged kids draft letters to school administrators or contact local nonprofits to improve either their own circumstances or that of others, and older children can volunteer with local groups or pioneer their own. 

For another example of teaching kids to advocate for causes they care about and modeling civic involvement, see our post on three ways to support libraries with your kids.

Book Pairings

Sharing a book is a great way to broach or explore any topic with kids. We’ve curated a selection of children’s books that illustrate the benefits and wonders of nature and that inspire children to do something about it. 

Planting Peace: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Gwendolyn Hooks

When Wangari Maathai was a child in Africa, the idea that the trees might someday disappear was unthinkable. As she grew and experienced more of the world around her, she discovered the fragility of nature and decided to do something about it. Multifaceted and prolific children’s author Gwendolyn Hooks explores Professor Maathai’s journey from a curious young child to becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in this inspiring and beautifully illustrated children’s book.

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

The Little House, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton in 1942, charmingly illustrates the difficult concept of urban sprawl to young children. It details the life of a cute little country house. When first built, the house is happy, surrounded by green grass and trees. As time goes on, a city springs up around the little house, completely crowding out the vital countryside she was used to. This enduring story is as timely and critical today as when it was first written. It was a favorite of mine as a child, and a favorite of my children when I became a parent. 

City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan

This classic picture book, written over a quarter of a century ago, tells the story of Marcy, a young girl in the city. She sees a disused lot in her neighborhood and has the idea to transform it into a useful community garden. This book shows young readers that you don’t have to wait until you are an adult to make a difference. 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

This memoir, written by Malawian author, inventor, and engineer William Kamkwamba, details his experiences as a young boy watching his family’s farm wither due to drought. The adversity facing William and a few forgotten science books inspired him to create a windmill from tractor parts and scrap metal, bringing both running water and electricity to his village. 

This story, recommended for older children from about 11 to 17, not only highlights the importance of nature to all of our lives, but also explores how innovation and creativity can improve our circumstance

MayaSmart.com is your one-stop-shop for raising a reader and a thinker, from evidence-based early literacy advice to fun activities that support key literacy learning, as well as great book recommendations for readers of all ages. Browse the site for more tips, tutorials, and book lists, or message Maya with your questions or activity requests! We’re so happy to have you here!

Penny Leigh Sebring is an experienced freelance writer, neophyte speculative fiction author, and a gatherer of information and imaginary friends.