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The Schoolyard Shift in Durham

Attitudes are shifting as school grounds grow green across Durham. (But The Biebs still reigns supreme.)

The big thing was not to go down The Hill. This is what I remember most about recess in the late 80s at Oshawa’s Adelaide McLaughlin P.S. I think it was too hard to wrangle us up again when the bell rang. So for 9 years of recesses and lunch hours we stood around on a mind-numbing expanse of pavement and hard-packed grass.

Fast forward 20 years, and I’m hanging out with the grade 4 class at Frenchman’s Bay P.S. in Pickering. They are jumping on top of giant boulders at the front of the school and telling me how much they love their The Outdoor Classroom. “It makes our school look fancy,” says Hina, with a sparkle in her eye. “You can stay in the shade so you don’t get heat stroke,” says Isabella, who is blonde and fair.

Out back, they tell me The Shady Grove has been claimed by grade 2 soccer players. And over in The Rock Garden, boulders double as picnic tables when math, art, French or science classes happen outside.

But this spring, at an event with staff from the Durham District School Board (DDSB) and project funders Toyota Canada and Evergreen, the buzz is about plans to add a new feature: The Living Oasis. The idea is to transform the school’s underused baseball diamond (they have two) into a lush environment with 16 native trees and plantings around meandering pathways. It would be the fourth shady, interesting outdoor space for this school of 700 students.

But The Living Oasis will only come into being if Frenchman’s Bay can get the funding, which won’t come from the school or the board.The school has raised $5,000 on their own at a community event, and are also hoping to rally support through an Aviva program that rewards “votes” with cash for projects. They have their eye on another Toyota Evergreen Learning Ground (TELG) grant as well.

The TELG program partnered with the DDSB in 2009, but has been creating outdoor classrooms with school boards across Canada for the last 12 years. Nationally, the program has committed more than $190,000 to 99 schools this year of which $6,000 went to 6 schools in the Durham Region.  

Stephanie Hickman is a representative from the Pickering Toyota Dealership that is paired with the school. “When we were young they didn’t involve us in projects like this,” she says. “They didn’t think we could do it.”

These kids aren’t only encouraged to go near the trees, they know all about them. They tell me that native species are better for biodiversity. Some of them helped build the mulched pathway. They pull weeds at recess. For fun.

Playground culture seems to be changing since we wandered across the scorching asphalt searching for the meaning of it all.

The stars of this program are Margaret McKenzie, a landscape architect and Evergreen Learning Grounds Design Associate, and Judy Gould, the Waste and Energy Officer with the DDSB. McKenzie designs outdoor spaces for playing and learning, using a participatory process that includes student input. Gould champions the project from the inside and ensures the plans meet all regulations.

Both Gould and McKenzie say they have noticed a huge shift in awareness in the last year that makes their jobs that much easier.

“There has been a real change in the thinking within the Durham Board,” says Gould. “Eco-friendly thinking is now part of the planning and design process. In the past projects would be completed and then someone would say, ‘Oh, too bad we didn’t plant some trees or include a garden while we were at it.’”

“But now,” says McKenzie, “we hear it ahead of time, all the time. Before they lay down asphalt, the crews will ask if they should save room to plant some trees, or if they should put down armour stone instead of asphalt. That never would have happened a few years ago.”

One big cost-saving advantage for Frenchman’s Bay is that they are in the middle of building renovations that have dug up a large portion of their playground. This provides the perfect opportunity to re-grade the landscape, addressing a drainage problem that prevented more greening from taking place. If schools can think like this, and buddy up greening projects with other construction, they can potentially save tens of thousands of dollars on their greening projects, says Cam Collyer, founder and director of the Learning Grounds program.

Grade 4 teacher Courtney Tyo uses the green spaces regularly with her students. She says that taking the class outside calms them down and “gives the kids more space. It also provides a natural sound barrier, so they actually have more privacy to talk than they do inside.”

Over popsicles in the dappled shade, the students tell me about their home gardening plans, about their Eco Champ club, how they made jewelry with pop tabs, and that they did a lunch waste audit. Other things we didn’t do in 1989.

I ask grade 4 student Jade why she likes the gardens so much. “It’s like a special gift to us,” she says, adding that she is in love with Justin Bieber.  

One of the parents gives me a sidelong glance. “When I was her age it was The Backstreet Boys.”  I try to remember which New Kid on the Block we wanted to marry.

Alas, trees can't change everything.
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