Asphalt to Ecosystems: An Interview with Sharon Danks

23 February 2011 · 3 comments

in Book Reviews, Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces

Sharon Danks is author of Asphalt to Ecosystems. This was THE book of 2010 about developing outdoor spaces and school grounds. It is a remarkable international collection of photos, ideas and inspiration. Thank you Sharon.


What is “Asphalt to Ecosystems” about?

When you think about “school grounds,” what type of image first comes to mind? For many people, school grounds are places covered by paved surfaces and uniform sports fields, adorned with a few nondescript shrubs and trees, and one or two ordinary climbing structures purchased from a catalog. Most school grounds in a given city or region look like all of the others, with very little variation to reflect unique aspects of each school community, the neighborhood’s environmental context, or the teachers’ preferred curricula and teaching methods.

This is a fairly standard example of grounds in many Scottish schools
At the same time, children’s domain—the areas they can roam on their own outside of school—have been shrinking over the last few generations, leaving many children with only the schoolyard to explore to discover how the world works. If what we are providing them is limited and bland, how will they develop their curiosity, their sense of adventure, and a well-rounded world view?

This is a “children-only” den at a Swedish “Rain or Shine” nursery. No adults allowed!
A movement is growing around the world to give our children a richer environment at school—to provide places for teachers to teach their lessons in a hands-on manner outside; places for children to explore a corner of the natural world to see how it functions; and places to run, hop, skip, jump, twirl and play in active, challenging, and creative ways.

Children are free to climb this cliff in this Swedish outdoor pre-school
Asphalt to Ecosystems is a book that seeks to inspire school communities to enrich their school grounds and embrace this paradigm shift toward “green schoolyards.” Students, parents, teachers, and school administrators are the leaders of this movement. In many cases, they are playing an active role in developing their school grounds to best suit their needs, and then acting as environmental stewards for their shared piece of public land.  Asphalt to Ecosystems includes examples from innovative school ground projects at 150 schools in 11 countries, illustrating some of the amazingly creative ideas schools have successfully developed on their grounds. The book is a resource for parents, teachers, school administrators, environmentalists, and schoolyard designers. It is intended as an inspiring handbook that can lead school communities through the step-by-step process of reimagining and redesigning their school sites.

Cowgate Under 5’s Centre – Children were fully consulted and involved in the planning of this outdoor space which is continuously evolving.

Why did you write this book and how did you manage to collect so many examples of practice?

I’ve been interested in this topic for the past thirteen years—since my days as a master’s degree student in the University of California, Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department. As an environmental city planner, my main interest is in the field of ecological design—the practice of designing cities so that they inherently use fewer resources and fit more elegantly within the natural systems that surround and sustain them.

Linkoping in Sweden has a lot of parkland
As a graduate student, I wondered how we might build societies that EXPECT that their cities will compliment the natural world, rather than dominate it. It seemed to me that one of the main barriers to creating sustainably designed cities is that many adults don’t understand how basic ecological systems work and can’t see how they are interrelated. If asked, they are unsure of where rainwater flows when it hits the ground, runs across their yard, and into a storm drain. They don’t know where their food comes from and how long it takes to grow. They don’t know which species of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife live in their neighborhoods or what the animals need to survive. Without foundational knowledge like this, it is difficult to make wise decisions about how our communities should be structured. So, I embarked on a study of school grounds as places to teach ecological systems thinking through hands-on lessons. Why teach about the water cycle from a diagram in a book, when you can step outside into the rain and observe it first hand?

This is one way to explore water first hand!
While researching my master’s degree thesis in 2000, I visited schools in the western United States, and studied school gardens, wildlife habitats, water systems, renewable energy systems, and projects built on school grounds with natural and recycled building materials.

A giant minibeast hotel made from wood palettes
After completing my master’s degrees (MLA-MCP), my research journey then took me on a post-graduate travelling fellowship to see more school grounds in Canada, England, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway; and later on my own to Japan and Germany. I found many amazing examples of innovative “green schoolyard” projects on ecological themes, and exciting examples of unique, challenging play environments and creative play opportunities I had not encountered before. Many of these school grounds had been developed by their school communities as collaborative projects over the course of many years. The results were magical environments that echoed their local communities—including art and design aesthetics that reflected the cultural ties of their students and region, and the ecology of their surrounding local environment. Some of these rich school grounds were maintained by their school administrations, but most were a labour of love, involving students, parents, and teachers as stewards of their school property.

Inveraray Primary School has much loved and looked after grounds with bespoke structures like this peace shelter
With a huge range of colourful photographs in hand, along with the stories and best practices shared by hundreds of generous colleagues, I decided it was time to create a book and put this information in one place so that it could be enjoyed by a wider audience. Often, school staff and parents are so busy with their daily work schedules that they don’t have time to visit other schools to see what they are up to. This book allows them to go on a “tour of the world” without leaving their chair

The Coombes School features in Sharon’s book. It’s hard to believe that their grounds were once grass and asphalt

Which part chapter do you like the best, if any?

The ecology section of the book is near and dear to my heart, since that was my entry point into this field. But as the parent of two elementary school children, I’d say that the play section is now my favourite. I’m particularly intrigued by the countries that let their students play vigorously on challenging play equipment—like the incredible “jungle playgrounds” designed by Asbjørn Flemmen (Norway), boulder “mountains” and other rock creations by designers like Frode Svane (Norway), and the hand-crafted wooden play structures (climbing frames) built from robinia wood that are commonly found in Germany and Denmark. All of these are safe play environments that meet their own country’s safety standards—but they allow FAR more exciting play options than American safety standards currently do. I would like to see my own country reassess the way we let our children play, based on the success of play environments like these in Europe.

What key pieces of advice would you give any school wishing to develop its school yard?

Here are some general rules of thumb for starting and sustaining green schoolyards (adapted from Chapter 2 of Asphalt to Ecosystems, pages 14-15):

  • Start with buy-in from the school principal (head teacher) – These projects can’t move forward without approval from the head of the school.
  • Form a green schoolyard committee to oversee the project’s development and share responsibilities.
  • Discuss new ideas with the school faculty before engaging parents. Teachers should be the first to know when something new will be happening in their work environment.
  • Make initial inquiries to the school district, and others responsible for maintaining the grounds, to see what’s possible.
  • Allow enough time to develop a long term vision for the school grounds, and create a schoolyard master plan drawing to use as your guide.
  • Allow project participants to “get their hands dirty” as soon as possible. Experimenting with small, portable, and temporary projects is often useful before building larger, more expensive, permanent additions to the grounds.
  • Dream big, but start small. Plan to implement the project slowly, over time. Try building one project each semester or year.
  • Never “finish,” so that the project will remain relevant to the school community as it changes over the years.
  • Plan for stewardship from the beginning. Green schoolyards are often more work to maintain than standard, paved grounds. It’s important to develop a plan for schoolyard care as you start the process.
  • Raise money to start the project and support it along the way.
  • Do not give up! Be persistent, flexible, and creative.

Measuring out the size of a seating area on a school playing field

What do you think are really useful features in a school yard?

For schools that are planning to use their grounds for outdoor lessons, I think it’s particularly important to have at least one outdoor space that can act as an outdoor classroom and seat at least a full class of students at a time. (Here, that’s typically 20-30 children, depending on their age.) It’s also useful to have smaller “break out” areas so groups of three to five students can sit together and collaborate on their work. These seating areas can be in the form of picnic tables, large boulders, logs, or elaborate tiered benches—as desired by the school. We also find that tool sheds are very handy for storing gardening tools and also for storing outdoor teaching supplies like magnifying glasses, clipboards, and other things that teachers and students like to have on hand.

This seating circle is one of many at The Coombes School

Here’s a smaller gathering place just beside one of the playgrounds at The Coombes School
To promote imaginative play at recess, I also like to include “nature play” elements like boulders and logs, and plants with “moveable parts” that children can play with (pinecones, acorns, sticks, interesting leaves, etc.). Informal “forts” that children can nestle into, are also very popular, and can be created by pruning the shrubs onsite to allow children to climb under their branches. (This can usually be done in a way that teachers can still supervise the kids while they are inside.)

This den was built by children at the Dornoch Allsorts After School Club
California has a lot of fantastic edible gardens that are used for nutrition education and outdoor instruction–but I also like to create informal “nibbling gardens” for use by the kids during their free time at recess. Nibbling gardens can be planted with vegetables, herbs, and fruits that students particularly enjoy. Here, we use plants like thornless blackberries, raspberries, sorrel, and other tasty treats. The children are allowed to pick the fruit and eat it onsite. Foraging is so much fun!

These children are helping themselves to raspberries and blackcurrants during the Nature Nurture Project

What are you up to at the moment and what are your plans for the future?

I run a landscape architecture and planning firm called Bay Tree Design, inc. in Berkeley, California with my business partner, landscape architect Lisa Howard. We have been working closely with the San Francisco Unified School District over the last three years on a series of 29 green schoolyard master planning projects. We are also working with other school districts in our area, and on some farther away as well. We welcome future projects from near and far! Have a look at EcoSchools Design website for more information too.

I’m also directing an international green schoolyard conference that will be held in San Francisco and Berkeley, California on September 16-18, 2011. The conference is called Engaging Our Grounds and will include presentations from experts in this field from around the world, as well as tours of some of the best green schoolyards in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our conference brochure will be available soon, and will be posted on the Asphalt to Ecosystems website. I hope you and your readers will join us for this exciting event. It will be a wonderful chance to see some exciting green schoolyards first-hand, and to meet like-minded colleagues from many different countries.

I love seeing schools that use their outdoor spaces as a natural part of the learning experience
I’d love to hear from Asphalt to Ecosystems readers who are inspired to start or expand their own green schoolyard projects. Please feel free to contact me at sharon (at)!

Finally Sharon came to Europe last year on a study tour organised by Frode Svane. He has two study tours in Denmark and Germany in late June 2011 that are planned to lead up to the International Play Association Conference in Cardiff in early July. These study trips are considered very worthwhile by school ground and play professionals and are open to all. For more information contact Frode by sending him a message on Facebook.

Many thanks to Sharon for sparing the time to tell the world about school grounds transformation.

The text is by Sharon Danks. Juliet supplied the photos which are nothing like as good as the ones in Sharon’s book which are mouth-wateringly wonderful…!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. February 24, 2011 at 10:09

Thanks for this interview Juliet. This book has been on my wish list for a while now (ever since you recommended it) and I’m really looking forward to getting a copy in my hot little hands now 🙂


My Urban Child July 29, 2011 at 10:01

Most children love to play outside.They can also learn how to share and take turns with other children. Many essential skills are learned through playing such as coordination and following rules. Children build strong bodies through physical exercise and are having fun at the same time.

Wooden Play Structures


dancewear husband November 23, 2011 at 22:52

Our daughter Miranda (17 1/2) from Omro High School just last week lost a favorite biology teacher to Pancreatic Cancer. Her inspirational story is here on youtube. Please view and share this short video:

Wondering if you can provide any possible advice for Omro High.



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