Skip to main content

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois Healthy Community Award

Space to Grow – Greening Chicago Schoolyards

When resources are limited, how does a cash-strapped school district find the funds to create and maintain playgrounds?

This was the challenge that confronted Space to Grow, a collaborative targeting low-to-moderate income urban neighborhoods in urgent need of open green spaces.

For too many kids, a local school’s playground is either nonexistent – or a useless muddy field. “Often, after heavy rains, the playground would flood, making it an unsafe place to conduct the type of outdoor activities we want students to participate in,” said Fernando Kim, Principal of Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy in Humboldt Park.

Space to Grow turned for assistance to two Chicago water management agencies – the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District – as well as the Chicago Public Schools. As a result, a unique partnership was forged that provided the additional capital needed to improve the playgrounds. The new partnership revived not only valuable recreational space, but also created new places for gardening and environmental education programs. It even provided free rain barrels and native plants to area residents.

The program is co-managed by Healthy Schools Campaign, an organization that promotes long-term wellness for students, and Openlands, a conservation organization whose aim is to help connect more people to natural open spaces, wherever they may live. To date, nine schoolyards have been completed and six more are awaiting construction. The group’s goal is to transform 34 schoolyards by 2020.

The benefits from these collaborative efforts have exceeded expectations. Besides the physical fitness and health benefits, there has been greater parent-student engagement, and greater emphasis on academic success. Perhaps most important of all, the playgrounds have instilled a new sense of ownership and pride in the community.

“It shows the commitment and passion to promote healthier lifestyles and build stronger communities,” Kim said. “Our atten- dance rates continue to grow and our student performance continues to improve because the school has become a more welcoming place to visit and to learn.”