A Planner who Favors Edible, Eco Education, and Risks

by Sarah Henry on March 25, 2011 · 19 comments

in berkeley bites,community gardens,growing greens,school food

Author and green schoolyard advocate Sharon Gamson Danks./Photo: Maia and Ayden Danks.

In the course of her travels researching her new book Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, Sharon Gamson Danks was struck by two things: First, the United States is a world leader in school food gardens and Berkeley is firmly at the epicenter of that movement.

And second, the U.S. lags far behind other countries when it comes to building green schoolyards with eco-friendly aspects beyond a produce patch — in other words spaces that encourage play with potential risk. We’re talking less asphalt and metal structures, and more nature nooks and shaded ponds.

An environmental planner, Danks and landscape architect Lisa Howard run Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, which specializes in designing ecological outdoor play spaces. They incorporate ideas picked up from Danks playground adventures overseas.

The UC Berkeley graduate (she has masters in both landscape architecture and city planning) has visited over 200 green schoolyards and parks in North America, Europe, Great Britain, and Japan, where she witnessed their impact on children’s play, education, and health.

Danks and Howard are wrapping up a master plan project for 29 schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, which is revamping many of its playgrounds thanks to a chunk of funds from two bond measures; she has worked on dozens of other green schoolyard projects.

The 39-year-old lives in the Berkeley hills with her husband and two expert playground testers, and tends a garden that boasts some 15 different fruit trees. She documents the bounty she harvests in a journal and on her site Edible Places.

Danks serves on the advisory board of the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and will speak on Saturday, at 5 p.m., at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show with colleagues Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle, co-authors of How to Grow a School Garden.

We met this week in the patio at Berkeley’s Café Leila.

Can you give some examples of model green schoolyards around the globe?

At the Coombes Primary School in England the children have woods to explore, a pond, and a fire pit in their play area, which is near a large patch of stinging nettles. On the day I visited, the children were making stinging nettle pasta on an outdoor stove. The only people who got stung were the adults. As the director points out: how will we raise capable, responsible humans if we don’t present them with some risk in their environments?

Americans confuse safety and liability but these are not the same things.

A play structure at Berkeley's Adventure Playground. Photo: Sharon Danks.

While on that subject, it’s amazing that a place like Adventure Playground survives in such a litigious country. How do you rate that play space?

I love Adventure Playground and am happy that it exists here in Berkeley. My two daughters’ favorite things to do there are ride the zip-line, climb the net structure, and use various built pieces as forts. It provides a wonderful, unstructured environment for kids that allows them to play in challenging ways and express their creativity and imagination as they explore the site. I think it’s great the playground provides real tools for children to use, and an appropriate environment to use them in.

What about other overseas child-centric playground ecosystems of note?

In Lund, Sweden there’s an after-school recreation center with a permaculture theme. It’s a superb example of green building techniques in a progressives town, not unlike Berkeley. The barn for the farm animals, built by middle school students, is a wooden beam and clay structure; the site has solar panels and wind turbines. It was built  over 10 years ago. It would be considered LEED platinum by today’s standards.

In the heart of Tokyo — you couldn’t get a more dense city — I went to a school where an extensive nature study area and wetland garden with a recirculating spring covers more than one third of the primary school grounds. Their edible garden includes a rice paddy, garden vegetables such as taro and herbs like shiso. They also grow a green curtain of vines each year in planter boxes along the school building wall, which is both aesthetically pleasing and provides needed shade.

Children at Malcolm X School in Berkeley tend beds and harvest vegetables in the garden. Photo: Sharon Danks.

Every Berkeley public school has an edible garden. Do any stand out?

Well, I’m partial to Rosa Parks Elementary, since my daughters go there. I’ve volunteered to help create a green schoolyard master plan. We have buy-in from many parents and teachers; it’s a compelling example of community stewardship. Garden teacher Tanya Stiller just installed a rainwater harvesting barrel. We’ve put in nibbling gardens, solar panels, a rock border, a pond with a solar-panel driven fountain, wooden fences and picnic benches.

What garden teacher Rivka Mason does at Malcolm X is fabulous; it’s one of the first places I bring visitors. I’m impressed by her teaching style and she listens to the kids and runs with their ideas. A whole generation of children are growing up on “weedos” (veggie burritto-like wraps made from sour sorrel, beet greens, or dinosaur kale).

The LeConte farm and garden, which also includes animals — in the past goats and ducks, currently chickens and rabbits — has a micro-climate that’s conducive to a long-growing season. Founded in 1982, the program is also one of the oldest continuously tended school gardens in California.

Honestly, I think all the schools in Berkeley offer creative garden curriculum with modest resources.

What about the Edible Schoolyard?

They’ve accomplished so much and it’s a model for what a cooking and gardening program can look like with significant resources. I’ve volunteered in the garden, which is always changing and evolving, as gardens should. The students at that school are free to roam the entire garden, not just tend one particular bed or plot. The outdoor classroom under the ramada is wonderful.

I’ve also volunteered in the kitchen and the teacher, Esther Cook, is impressive — both in how she ties cooking to the curriculum and the way she connects with the kids. I look forward to my daughters having those experiences.

Where do you source your own food?

In addition to foraging from our own backyard, we receive a weekly CSA box from Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley and we buy most of our meat directly from Wind Dancer Ranch. We frequent the farmers’ market too.

What’s next?

I’m planning an international conference in September, co-hosted by the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance  and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which will take place in Berkeley and San Francisco. We’ll offer public tours and show visitors what we’re doing here to make children’s outdoor environments places of vibrant exploration, challenge, and wonder.

The San Francisco Flower & Garden Show runs through March 27 at the San Mateo Event Center. Many Berkeley food and garden folks will do demos or give talks, including Alice Waters and Esther Cook from the Edible Schoolyard, Sean Baker from Gather Restaurant, Chris Dehenzel from UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and Andrea Hurd of Mariposa Gardening and Design.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education
School Food Japanese Style
Surgeon General Swings by Edible Schoolyard
Garden Teacher Kim Allen Offers Youth Space to Grow
Dig It: Growing Greens, Creating Communities, and Feeding Families

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

MP March 26, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I love hearing about the work that Ms. Danks and her ilk are doing. When we spent the summer in Stockholm a few years ago, what impressed me most were the urban parks and playgrounds: climbing walls, zip-lines, plus your usual swings and slides: http://makeanle.blogspot.com/2007/08/more-on-playgrounds.html.


Sarah Henry March 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I knew this post would be up your alley, MP. Love the link to your Stockholm adventures — the equipment does look cool and the girls seem so much younger. Where does the time go?


Alexandra March 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I think these playgrounds sound wonderful. How does one convince the school boards to embrace them with the liability question always in the forefront of minds here in the USA?
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Dark Chocolate- Anyone


Sarah Henry March 26, 2011 at 12:21 pm

A good question, Sandy, and one I didn’t ask Danks, though I will and will let you know how she responds.


NoPotCooking March 26, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I found this so fascinating:
“The only people who got stung were the adults. As the director points out: how will we raise capable, responsible humans if we don’t present them with some risk in their environments?”
How amazing that the children did not get stung first of all and then the director’s statement is absolutely right!
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Mahi Mahi with Fennel and Blood Orange


Sarah Henry March 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Did you grow up around stinging nettles, NPC? I did and can report that once you’ve accidentally grabbed hold of a bunch of ‘em you never make that mistake again.
Ouch! But that’s how we learn — through experience and by making mistakes — which is I think what that wise director is talking about.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. March 27, 2011 at 9:14 am

I do think there’s a small but crucial difference between running roughshod through woods and streams (as I did growing up in a semi-rural area) where only parents are responsible for your welfare and a managed learning environment where parents entrust that kids will not be exposed to harm. Smart that the teachers/adults handled the nettles and demonstrated the adverse effects!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Seeing Summer in a Bowl of Clam Chowder


Sarah Henry March 27, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Totally valid point, Casey. I think what the folks who favor green schoolyards with challenge envision is “managed” or “controlled” risk — not a license for kids to do whatever takes their fancy, danger be damned.


Jane Boursaw March 27, 2011 at 10:25 am

Wonderful stories like these always remind me of the movie ‘Green Card,’ a romantic comedy starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell as a gardener who worked to bring greenery to urban areas. A lovely movie and a lovely cause.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Daily Hot Shot- Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy


Sarah Henry March 27, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Why does it not surprise me, Jane, that you come up with a movie reference here?


Roxanne March 27, 2011 at 3:11 pm

I love that book title, and I could NOT be more jealous of schools with these amenities. I look back on my schools now and think, “Boy, was that place a dud.” But, my grandpa had an awesome garden, so I suppose that made up for it.


Sarah Henry March 27, 2011 at 6:04 pm

It’s a great title isn’t it, Roxanne? Your comment made me think back to my own schoolyard days…I remember really hot, baking, almost sticky asphalt, a huge green playing field, and lots of gum trees in the suburban Sydney school I attended. Nobody I knew growing up raised their own produce, though, everyone was trying to cultivate English cottage gardens in the broiling Southern Hemisphere heat.


Susan March 27, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I was much more of an indoor person growing up, but I suspect had I had settings to explore like this, I might have been more interested in the outdoors. Reminds me of the Secret Garden and how Mary’s exploration of the overgrown gardens on the Craven estate helped her adjust her outlook on live. She certainly wouldn’t have had a jungle gym or a slide but she found ways to occupy herself without getting hurt.


Sarah Henry March 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm

I know what you mean, Susan. It doesn’t surprise me that the Brits do a good job of providing woodsy play environments for kids. I grew up on a steady diet of English lit where the landscape featured prominently.


Sheryl March 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Wow. There’s a whole world out there for kids to learn about healthy, sustainable living. When I think back to how I grew up, and even how my kids did, it makes me wish we’d all been exposed to wonderful treats like these…life would be so much more interesting, you know?


Sarah Henry March 29, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Agreed. What’s a life without a little risk and adventure?


MyKidsEatSquid April 4, 2011 at 6:15 am

Love the book title and the idea. I find that often fresh food/healthy eating program emphasize elementary school children and then all but forget older kids. My daughter, a middle schooler, has told me as much. In elementary school there was at least a salad bar but in middle school it’s extra fries and tater tots.


Sarah Henry April 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

While that’s not at all our experience here in Berkeley (my kid says he thinks school food gets better in middle school, and he really enjoys his cooking and gardening classes in 6th grade too) yours is a lament I hear often elsewhere around the country.


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