Natural Play Space in Oakland Schoolyard
(click to enlarge)
1. Plan for liberating the tree jail
2. Tree hangout and play setting among the trees
3. Plan for a greenway around the asphalt schoolyard
Kids taking advantage of new access to mud
Kia, a PTO Mom, helping to build the tree deck
Kids gathering 'supplies' for their play scenario
Wood scraps become props for imaginative play
Bench backs create cozy place for hanging out
A ramp provides easy access to tree fort
A hole is a way up as well as part of a stage set for make believe drama

Before I began to work with the PTO at Emerson Elementary School, Cal. College of Art Landscape students were already working with a 6th grade class on planning and planting an orchard on the perimeter of the schoolyard. The students took a sliver of grass and turned it into a productive and beautiful part of the school's curriculum thus beginning a process of greening the yard.

This process is continuing in another oddly shaped plot adjacent to the orchard that was once wryly called 'the tree jail'. This winter parents got together to liberate the oak trees that were trapped inside the locked chain link fence and took the first steps to create a shaded natural play area they now call 'Oak Land'. They asked me to draw a simple design for the area (1) and began to implement it by removing sections of the fence for access, piling protective top soil around the trees' roots and adding tree stumps for some basic play elements. The PTO then raised funds to complete the plan to build the first phase, a hangout deck around the tree trunks (2).

When Oak Land is finished and planted by parents and community members and the Orchard starts to mature and provide food and learning opportunities for Emerson's children, the first two elements of our ultimate vision, a greenway around the perimeter of the asphalt schoolyard (3), will be complete.

Following through on the momentum created from the first two elements, we hope to continue taking bite-sized chunks from the asphalt around the yard, one per year, each fulfilling one or more outdoor functions that the Emerson community sees as necessary for its curricular or recreational program until a ring of green surrounds most of the schoolyard. Teachers, students and parents will get a chance to put forth ideas and participate in designing each section. Ideas may range from creating a play city with streets and houses to growing a butterfly garden to making an outdoor classroom. These will be small, incremental, inexpensive, do-it ourselves projects which will add up to make a huge impact on the school's environment and the surrounding community.