Increasingly evidence is gathered about the positive influence of nature on the health and development of children. For this reason a growing number of schools in the Netherlands have decided to make their schoolyards greener. Tree trunks, bushes to roam around in, hills, flowers and a lawn, these are just some examples of green elements in a schoolyard. A green schoolyard is constructed in such a way that playing in nature is a natural thing. But do green schoolyards really achieve their goal?

These are the two most important questions that scientists posed themselves for the study Groene schoolpleinen: Een wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar de effecten voor basisschoolleerlingen (Green schoolyards: A scientific study into the effects for primary school children). Working together with various partners, including Jantje Beton (a Dutch society for encouraging outdoor activities for children), Productschap Tuinbouw and VHG (Dutch associations for horticulture and the gardening trade) that a survey was set up in 2013 to monitor the effects of green schoolyards. In order to find out, a literature study and fieldwork were carried out. This article explains the findings of this study.

Appreciation for green

In the study three types of schoolyards were distinguished: the playground that is completely green, a schoolyard with a combination of grey and green elements and a completely grey (paved) playground. The appreciation for these three types was surveyed among four target groups: schoolchildren aged 8 to 11 , parents, teachers and the school administration. The experiences with the different types of schoolyard show that all user groups, in comparison to grey schoolyards, rate the green schoolyards higher. The administration and schoolchildren are the most positive, the parents the least.

Grades for the schoolyard given by the respondents in the surveygreen

More adventurous and comfortable

A schoolyard with natural elements, like grass, a vegetable garden and tree trunks is more appreciated than a grey one. Green schoolyards are considered more fun, adventurous, beautiful, comfortable and cosier than schoolyards with a concrete playing elements. It also seems a green schoolyard has more to offer than just playing fun: the green playground is used more often and for a variety of lessons than the paved yard. Research also demonstrates that pupils are able to concentrate better in class after playing outside during recess. This is mostly true for boys. Girls appear to be able to concentrate better on a grey schoolyard.

Negative effects of the green schoolyard are that it reduces control and supervision (it’s harder to see what is happening), dirty clothes and higher costs for maintenance. It should be noted that the school administrations are mainly concerned that parents will be upset because children are getting dirty (which might not necessarily happen), while parents think administrations will not appreciate the higher maintenance costs of green schoolyards (which also hardly happens, since the school administrators attach more importance to the positive effects.)

Moving about

One of the reasons a green schoolyard is constructed is because people think the ways of moving about can be more intensive and varied. It is supposed to have a beneficiary effect on the growing number of overweight children. However, this has not been scientifically proved. Follow-up research is needed to draw conclusions in that respect. Teacher and parents do indicate that green playgrounds do entice more movement and variation in the way children play.

A higher level of well-being in children aged 8 and 9

Pupils were asked to answer some questions relating to their sense of well-being in school. It seemed that younger children (ages 8 to 9) are particularly sensitive to green. Their well-being is significantly lower on a grey schoolyard than on a green one. This difference is less obvious with older pupils (aged 10 and up). On the contrary: they give a grey playground a higher rating. This means that a green schoolyard mainly has a positive impact on the well-being of younger pupils. They like greener schools better and experience more fun in playing and less bullying.

Outdoor classes

Teaching outdoors is not a given in the Netherlands. However it does offer many opportunities. In the survey various teacher interviews can be found about teaching classes in the green schoolyards. One gathers from these that a practical reason for teaching outdoors is the large amount of space. Mainly for PE, school celebrations and drama this is very convenient. But reasons of an educational nature could be that pupils are more involved in the teaching process (i.e. resource-based teaching) and it lengthens the time pupils spend outside. This is seen as a positive aspect. Yet there are also disadvantages, mostly practical. Teaching outside is often problematic because there are no facilities, like chairs or tables. It can also be noisy. Another thing is that the school inspection doesn’t always look favourably on teaching outdoors. What is the added value, is it responsible from an educational technical point of view and what about the working conditions for the teaching staff?

Elements of a green schoolyard

As said before, schools are changing from a grey to a green schoolyard in ever larger number, because they value its positive added merit. But what exactly is a proper green schoolyard? According to the study the following elements need to be taken into account when constructing a green schoolyard:

  • Relaxation
  • Activity (inviting actions)
  • Moving about in various ways (primary forms of movement)
  • Variation in playing (keeping in mind differences in age and sex)
  • Sensory experience

For these reasons grassy fields, gardens with trees and playground equipments are highly appreciated. A petting zoo, allowing interaction with animals, is also seen as a positive element. Sporting elements, like a football goal or table tennis table are appreciated sometimes too, but that is usually depending on the sex of the respondent. Boys are positive about these most of the time.

Less highly rated aspects are the more passive elements like bushes, ponds, benches and bicycle racks. With two exceptions: hilly structures and sandboxes. These are both seen as negative, although they can be used well for playing or other activities.

Practice will tell

Scientifically seen there are still many questions left unanswered, hopefully they are to be looked into in the near future. At this moment, many more green school grounds are being developed and this means that the study can be done on a much larger scale in the future.

For the benefit of the ‘Gezonde School’ (healthy school) programme in primary schools, secondary schools and vocational education can ask for support in developing a healthy playground. The public request procedure will start in March 2014. A factsheet with all right elements of a healthy schoolyard, if you want to receive financial support, can be downloaded there.