Transforming an Asphalt Playground Into School Gardens and Outdoor Classrooms

Introduction: Transforming an Asphalt Playground Into School Gardens and Outdoor Classrooms

When your children start school, you envision sending them to a beautiful, welcoming environment. For many of us, the reality is often much different - older schools, barren asphalt playgrounds, weeds, trash, and graffiti.

With our budget strapped schools fighting to keep teachers and staff, it is often up to parents with a passion to bring beauty and vibrancy to the schoolyard with art, greenery, flowers, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens.

In this instructable, I discuss the following topics to help you successfully initiate and execute projects in your own community.

  • Getting connected with organizations already in place to learn the lay of the land and form relationships
  • Creating community and spreading the workload by encouraging others to work with you
  • Finding inspiration in other gardens, on the web, in discussions with staff and the community and in taking advantage of opportunities
  • Defining the project scope, features, purpose and functionality
  • Assembling a project team
  • Developing and communicating the design
  • Ensuring that anything installed at the school is safe, durable and low maintenance
  • Determining who will build the project - hired contractors, volunteers, or a combination of the two
  • Involving the kids as often as possible
  • Celebrating with everyone that contributed to the success of the project

Step 1: Get Involved and Appreciate What Has Already Been Accomplished

The first step in making a change is to get involved with the volunteer organizations already in place such as the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) or PTO (Parent-Teacher Organization). It's a great way to find out what projects are in progress, learn how decisions are made at the school, understand funding options and meet people that are like-minded about investing time and effort to improve the school.

Our school, Marin Elementary School in Albany, CA, has a committee dedicated to campus beautification. We are affectionately known as the "garden fairies". I joined and developed a good working relationship with a group of people who also believe that the quality of the environment influences how kids feel about being in school. By becoming a "garden fairy" I learned:

  • The district only sends "mow and blow" guys every few months to do very basic maintenance.
  • While teachers appreciate areas we develop for vegetable gardens, they can't use them unless they also have volunteers to work with the kids to plant, harvest and cook. They just don't have time.
  • Everything we plant, we have to maintain ourselves
  • Although only a few of us will volunteer to work on a regular, frequent schedule, we can attract 40 or more volunteers to special work days - especially if we provide food and projects for the kids.
  • At the elementary school, the principal is king (or queen) and that by faithfully maintaining projects we have installed, we earn credibility to get new projects approved.
  • The PTA budgets $500/year for beautification but is open to giving more money for special projects

All valuable information to have before trying to forge ahead on a new campaign!

If your school doesn't have a similar group, consider forming one. It is easier to ask for information, permission and funding as an official committee than it would be as an individual.

Step 2: It Creates a Village

A typical school covers a huge physical area and serves hundreds of people. Creating, maintaining and operating a school garden and education program is a big job; it takes a village. Better said, it creates a village.

Getting as many people as possible involved in developing school gardens has many benefits:

  • Working together creates connections and generates a sense of community.
  • The workload doesn't fall on a few overtaxed shoulders and backs.
  • Projects can blossom by tapping into the strengths and talents of many people.
  • Contributing to a project creates a sense of ownership and an interest in seeing it succeed and flourish.

Enhancing the school grounds with greenery, flowers, art, seating and shade benefits not only the students but also the entire community. It encourages people to linger and strike up conversations. For example, when designing a retaining wall to prevent mud from streaming across the playground on rainy days, we ensured it was a comfortable seating height. It essentially became a 150-foot long bench where kids sit together to have their lunch and parents relax and chat while watching their children play before and after school.

Step 3: Find Inspiration

Visit other gardens - When looking for ideas of how to develop a school garden program, I visited many school and community gardens in our area. Where possible, I talked to the staff at those gardens to ask what worked best and what could be improved. I took photographs that helped others at our school envision what our garden might eventually be.

Search the web - There are some excellent resources on school gardens available online. Two of my favorites are and

Get input from school staff, parents and kids - We asked to be put on the agenda at teacher/staff meetings to brainstorm ideas for new projects and gather feedback on current programs, attended PTA meetings, and surveyed the students.

Take advantage of opportunities - Some trees needed to be removed on the playground due to weak branches that posed a threat; we cut these into stumps and created an outdoor classroom. The school kitchen was renovated and a large steel sink and counter was to be discarded; we salvaged it and reused it in the school garden for washing veggies. A portable building was slated for removal freeing up large area on the playground; we successfully proposed building a raised bed garden in that area.

Step 4: Define the Project, Do Research, and Get Approval

Once you have decided on a specific project to tackle, put the requirements and desires for the project in written and graphical form. Define its scope, features, purpose and functionality. Examine constraints such as safety regulations, building code restrictions, and school district guidelines and research potential funding sources to determine a project budget. When the project has been defined, get approval from the school and district administrators to move ahead.

As an example, for Snake Wall project, we wanted a retaining wall that would provide the following functionality:

  • Stop dirt from washing across the playground on rainy days
  • Provide a planting area for drought tolerant plants and fruit trees
  • Create a sand/dirt play area offering kids a place for imaginative play and digging
  • Give children and adults a comfortable place to sit
  • Incorporate a student art project

We researched building codes on retaining walls, safety guidelines for playground equipment, consulted with the school district facilities manager, and on his direction, got a sign off from the fire department that our project would not impede fire lane access. Funding sources were explored and we got a commitment from the PTA for $5,000 towards the project, a promise from a local company, American Soil and Stone, to donate soil and rocks for the planting area, and identified potential grants for the student art project.

Once we had a clear idea of what we wanted to build and assured ourselves that the project was feasible, we presented the plan to the principal and district superintendent and got approval to continue with the project.

Step 5: Assemble a Team of Rock Stars

When putting together the project team, look to your village for help. Many parents and family members are happy to volunteer their expertise to improve the school when asked. Depending on your personality, it may be difficult to ask for help, but realize that you are offering an opportunity to connect and contribute. It will enrich their family's experience at the school. Seek them out and ask nicely! If you can't find people to volunteer needed expertise, you will need to ensure your budget includes the expense of hiring consultants.

We are lucky to have architects, landscape architects and designers, engineers, contractors, artists, gardeners and grant writers that make will time in their busy lives to answer questions and volunteer on specific projects. They rock!

Step 6: Design - Be Flexible, Get Creative!

Taking time to develop and communicate your design before beginning construction will result in a better quality project and help to prevent errors and misunderstandings. This is where you decide the layout of spaces, appearance, materials, construction technique, project schedule and develop a cost estimate to ensure you are within budget.

Depending on the scale of your project, figuring out exactly what you are going to build (or plant) and how to do it can be as simple as a conversation and quick sketch or it may require a more formal process with several design iterations, specialist consultants, and finally a set of construction documents. Consult with your experts to determine what level of design and documentation is appropriate. Establish a clear decision-making process so that the project can proceed smoothly.

The design process requires flexibility - the initial vision may need to be modified to fit budget, schedule or spatial constraints. Your project team may bring new ideas to the table or a donation of materials may influence the design. Being open to the synergy of creative minds working together will allow your design to flourish!

As an example, the left side of the images above shows the "inspiration examples" that were used to communicate our requirements for the retaining wall and raised garden beds to the project teams. The right side shows the explosion of creativity resulting from the collaboration of project team members!

Step 7: Mantra - Safe, Durable and Low Maintenance!

Designing for a schoolyard requires a special frame of mind. Your project will be tested in ways that only a child can imagine. It will be climbed on, jumped off of, pulled on and picked at, crawled under, balanced and swung on and vaulted over. Additionally at a school site, funds are always in short supply to repair, replace or maintain items. The goal is to provide a benefit to your community, not a liability. Repeat after me…"Whatever we build will be safe, durable and low maintenance".

Below are some examples of design decisions we made to achieve this:

  • We treated our retaining wall as a piece of playground equipment and provided a poured-in-place rubber surface at the base of the wall.
  • Raised bed planters were made of recycled plastic lumber for absence of splinters, rounded edges and durability. The material has a 25-year warranty and should last longer than wooden planters.
  • We decided to keep the existing asphalt ground surface in the raised bed garden area instead of digging it up to minimize weeds and avoid tracking mulch into classrooms. (We isolated the soil from the asphalt with layers of filter fabric and gravel.)
  • Screws are used instead of nails for durability.
  • Landscaped areas are lined with a thick landscape filter fabric to prevent weeds from taking root.
  • Automatic irrigation is used wherever possible to minimize the need for hand watering (especially over the summer).
  • Tree stump seating is secured into the ground so they will not tip when kids jump from one to another.

Step 8: Who Swings the Hammer?

Determine if you will build the project using volunteers, hired contractors or a combination of the two. Consider the scope of the project, skill and equipment required, warranty, insurance and liability concerns and available volunteers who are qualified to do the job.

The retaining wall was a heavy lifting, expensive project. It was important to us to have licensed, bonded contractors who could provide a warranty on their work. However, we also used volunteers where appropriate and got the kids involved wherever possible.

We hired contractors for the following:

  • Forming, reinforcing and pouring the concrete wall
  • Creating the poured-in-place rubber surface
  • Operating a crane to place large boulders

We used volunteers and student helpers to:

  • Move all the gravel and dirt into place behind the retaining wall
  • Install plants and trees

The school district maintenance team installed the drip irrigation system.

3rd grade student artists created the beautiful mosaic!

The Kingdom of Veggies with raised bed planters, greenhouse, fence, drip irrigation, outdoor veggie washing sink plumbed to drain to landscaped area below, compost bins and seating was built entirely by volunteers. Our amazing art teacher directed students in the creation of the artwork.

Step 9: Get the Kids Involved Wherever You Can

Finding ways to include students in the design and construction process has great benefits. Their sense of pride and ownership of the school increases enormously! If they make it, they'll love it and take care of it.

Here are some of the ways our students contributed:

  • Artwork - murals, mosaics, sculpture, paintings
  • Dirt moving - these were the happiest days of all on the schoolyard!
  • Carpentry
  • Naming the garden area
  • Planting both landscape plants and vegetables
  • Plant care - watering and weeding

Step 10: Celebrate and Recognize the Contributions of All Your Volunteers and Supporters!

When the project is complete be sure to celebrate everyone that contributed to the project. Make sure they know they are appreciated and they might be willing to help again!

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    Question 4 years ago on Step 7

    Can you provide more details about the filter fabric you used and the gravel to provide a barrier between the beds and the asphalt? Where did the filter fabric go? Did you lay it down on the asphalt, line the garden bed with it, both? How thick a layer of gravel did you use? How big/small was the gravel? I'm a parent/professional designing a garden of raised beds and containers at a school for children with disabilities. Avoiding toxicity is super important!! Thank you for any specifics you can share.


    7 years ago

    I think every school should do this it looks so fun and amazing!