The Learning Landscapes program transforms school grounds and brings new opportunities

It all began 11 years ago when Lois Brink, a concerned mother whose kids were attending Denver’s Bromwell Elementary, couldn’t tolerate her children’s school playground. In her mind, and that of most of the other parents, the playground more closely resembled a crumbling prison yard than a kid-friendly recreational oasis.

Before and after picture of Ashley Elementary School, which was completed in August 2010.

Brink, a University of Colorado-Denver (UCD) professor of landscape architecture, was uniquely suited to lead the battle cry to rework this piece of hallowed ground for the children. By enlisting some of her landscape architecture students to design a play area tailored to the neighborhood’s needs, and working with other Bromwell parents to raise a quarter of a million dollars, her grassroots efforts succeeded in transforming her school’s play yard.

Now, the remaining 80 public elementary school playgrounds in Denver have been transformed, or are in the process of being transformed, into attractive and safe multi-use parks designed to reflect the cultural heritage of their surrounding communities. What’s more, the Learning Landscapes program, with Brink now its executive director, is putting a lot of Denver-based landscapers to work.

“A schoolyard is more than just a playground,” says Brink. “It’s a catalyst for healthy living; it’s for embracing the slow wonder of life and creative play; it’s for experiencing nature in our ever urbanizing cities; it’s for vegetable gardens and reuniting our youth with the joy of food, from seed to table; it’s for art as an expression of children and local artists; and it’s for bringing communities together.”

According to Brink, the program offers an experiential learning process for students, including assisting them in becoming more physically active and civic minded, while reconnecting communities with their public schools.

The Learning Landscapes program continues to roll along with a solid foundation of community support. In 2003 and 2008, Denver residents voted to pass multi-million dollar bond initiatives to fund the program, ensuring that all 81 schools are on the roster for a playground overhaul, whether in upscale Cherry Creek North where Bromwell is located or impoverished inner-city downtown Denver.

Designscapes, a Denver-based landscaping company, has been with Learning Landscapes since its inception. It has designed and installed at least half of the renovated Denver Public School playgrounds to date, and it also has two-year package agreements to maintain the playgrounds it has built.

The McGlone Elementary School project demonstrates design elements that are incorporated into every learning landscape. This design has a Four Seasons theme. The Four Seasons Plaza has a calendar sandblasted into the playground, as well as an asphalt painting, sod field, central gathering space and shade structure.

Incorporated in 1991, Designscapes is a design-build company serving high-end residential properties in southwest Denver, and it also provides full-service maintenance for residential properties including mowing and snow removal. It employs 30 salaried team members and nearly 150 seasonal employees.

“Generally, the Learning Landscapes playgrounds will integrate three surfaces including mulch, SBR rubber and natural or synthetic turf,” says Tom Brownfield, Designscapes division manager. “When these playgrounds are transformed, so are the kids that attend these schools. They now want to come to school and want to learn. It’s incredible to see this kind of transformation.”

A Learning Landscapes design consists of traditional elements, including turf playing fields; slides, swings and monkey bars; and asphalt basketball courts. Additional elements can include cultivated and habitat gardens, outdoor sculptures, amphitheaters, shade shelters and community gateways. Often, for the first time in the schools’ histories, their playgrounds are integrated with vibrant colors, elevation changes, artwork and even lawns and gardens.

Kerry White of Urban Play Studio, a Boulder-based landscaping consulting business, has been involved with the design and construction of 14 of the playgrounds, including Ellis Elementary Learning Landscape in southeast Denver. “Ellis used to be a neglected playground with a worn asphalt play pad and pea gravel field,” says White. “We replaced it with new colorful court games, play equipment and a sodded field.”

Many of Ellis’ students are new immigrants, so local artists volunteered to create a giant globe play pad with two curving “geography bands” running across the playground depicting the latitude and longitude of Denver. Two boulder “globes” were cut in half, one along the latitude and one along the longitude. Colorful markers highlight such locations and corresponding landmarks including the monumental statues of Easter Island, the famous painting “Las Meninas” of Madrid, The Great Wall of China and the giant crab of the Sea of Japan. Because the markers are laid out to scale, Ellis students can measure just how far they are from their school.

Barnum Elementary project, completed in August 2010. Good Land Construction was the landscape contractor at this school.

Other site features include a geography garden, a globe climbing boulder and a colorful custom shade shelter decorated with flags from around the world. Gardens were created with native plants and composting bins were added, and green roofs were introduced on the school building.

Students from the school colored animals on paper with the art teacher.Design Concepts found a manufacturer to create resin climbing structures based on the students drawings.

Transforming cracked asphalt and pea gravel playgrounds into lush, green and growing state-of-the-art Learning Landscapes isn’t an inexpensive proposition, according to Cate Townley, Learning Landscapes’ volunteer and maintenance coordinator. “It takes more than just moving in some monkey bars and a couple of pieces of new equipment,” she says. “Most sites are now incorporating green lawns and gardens, so they need irrigation. They also need corresponding new hardscapes. The cost can run up to $400,000 to $500,000 each.”

With recent budget shortfalls hitting or threatening most major city school systems, including Denver’s, keeping up adequate budgets for the program is a constant challenge. So is the scheduling of design and construction so as not to disrupt regular school operations, and ensuring long-term maintenance. Then, there’s the constant flux of new principals that want to put their own individual thumbprint on the playgrounds they’ve inherited.

Despite the difficulties, the Learning Landscapes program is not only surviving, but thriving via an extensive collaborative process.

Once the new playground is up and running, the Denver Public Schools’ facility managers and grounds departments share maintenance duties with private landscaping maintenance companies. Maintenance tasks include litter control and vandalism reporting; raking engineered wood fiber; irrigation; mowing, aerating, reseeding and weed control of the turf; tree pruning for those trees reaching 8 feet or higher; and re-striping asphalt in game areas. Learning Landscapes committees and community members also work with school grounds crews and contracted private landscapers to take ownership and help maintain lawns and gardens. These teams can also help with organizing schoolyard cleanup events, spreading mulch, habitat and vegetable garden planting and reporting maintenance and safety issues.

Sandblasted games have been incorporated into the design on this playground.

Mountain High Tree, Lawn and Landscape Company, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs employing 50 people, is another company involved with the program. This summer, the company led volunteer days at Carlson Elementary School in east Denver, inviting the community to lay sod and plant trees. It employed some interesting gardening equipment that included shovels crafted from re-fashioned metal from confiscated guns and rifles. “What were once weapons of destruction for inner city kids are now tools to plant trees of hope,” says Ralph Bronk, Mountain High president. “About 30 3 to 4-inch-diameter trees were planted. We had a great turnout and the crowd was very enthusiastic. It was rewarding to work with so many volunteers and to get that much done.”

The success of the Learning Landscapes project demonstrates a healthy enthusiasm for aesthetics, as well as a common-sense approach to maintenance, safety and recreational issues. The principal value of these projects is their multi-purpose nature and individual thumbprint developed by the community. By bringing together diverse groups working in concert, a civic process, not just a project, is created. UC-Denver landscape architecture students provide design services to local communities while learning the value of civic responsibility; community members, school ground crews and landscaping companies work together in creating, building, maintaining and celebrating the new landscapes; and best of all, the schools’ children are energized and enlightened by the fresh new look and feel of their school’s renovated playground and surrounding landscape.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.