Healthy Schools

Learning Landscapes boost physical activity

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Colorful, inviting play areas, such as this Learning Landscapes-designed playground at Denver's Edison Elementary School, encourage physical activity.

One by one, the first-graders at Denver’s Colfax Elementary School handed over their paperwork, picked out the color of wristband they wanted, then stuck out their non-dominant hand and watched while the accelerometers were strapped around their wrists.

For the next week, these 6- and 7-year olds will be on the cutting edge of playground research, that liminal zone where architecture, urban planning and exercise science meet recess. They will wear their accelerometers – small water-proof, kid-proof devices that measure physical activity – 24 hours a day for six days. For their efforts, they’ll each get two $10 gift certificates to Walmart, and their families get a $30 gift certificate when the accelerometer is returned at the end of the week. They’re among the first wave of students taking part in a five-year study that eventually will encompass youngsters at 24 schools in three local school districts.

The object: To determine how much playground design and structured recess activities can boost physical activity levels in children.

“We’re trying to get a breadth of information from the students,” said Sarah Lampe, research coordinator for Learning Landscapes, the University of Colorado at Denver College of Architecture and Planning program that has been transforming DPS playgrounds into colorful, kid-friendly meccas for the past decade.

“In addition, a lot of our grad students are going out to the sites, looking at the play equipment, at the quality of it, the condition it’s in, and we’re putting in data about things like the distance between pieces of equipment, its color, its vendor. It seems strange, but what we’re hoping to find out is just what type of equipment drives more activity. Does a tether ball court being next to a four-square affect how active kids are?”

Researchers also will assess whether having a structured after-school physical activity program, called SPARK, available to students increases overall activity levels. Eventually, they’ll also assess the extent to which

The accelerometer is a water-proof, kid-proof device that students will wear continuously around their wrists for six days to track their physical activity.

having school gardens can entice youngsters to boost their activity levels by weeding, hoeing and all the other calorie-burning activities that come with gardening.

“We think it will be huge,” said Lois A. Brink, professor in the CU-Denver College of Architecture and Planning and the executive director of Learning Landscapes.

Results from earlier, less comprehensive studies show that while well-planned playgrounds don’t necessarily make active kids even more active, they do make sedentary kids more active. In a study last year funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, graduate students spent time observing activity patterns at nine school playgrounds. Three of the schools had old, unimproved playgrounds, three had well-established Learning Landscapes playgrounds, and three had newly-built Learning Landscapes playgrounds.

They determined that the Learning Landscapes playgrounds were used far more often than the non-improved playgrounds, sometimes by a factor of as much as 300 percent.

“We found that, of course, boys are always more active than girls. That’s all over the research,” said Lampe. “But we did find a couple of areas in the Learning Landscapes playgrounds that had no gender bias, where boys and girls were equally active. It was in the natural areas, the areas with trees and bushes and gardens – areas that aren’t typically found in a pea gravel playground.”

“We also found that, with both boys and girls, it’s not that we had an increase in very active kids. But we did have a decrease in sedentary children, which is a big deal. There were many fewer kids in the Learning Landscapes playgrounds who were just sitting around,” she said. “And we found that the results didn’t wear off after time. Whether the Learning Landscapes were recently built or were built years ago, they always had a lot of physical activity, more than the control schools.”

The results of the study will be published in August in the American Journal of Public Health.

What accounts for the magic? Brink said she isn’t sure – this latest ongoing study may help answer that more specifically – but she said she knows that colorful, dynamic play areas with plenty of age-appropriate play equipment, shade and green, growing areas, and a welcoming gateway that invites the community to come in are part of the equation.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Having something to provide shade is a critical element of a successful playground, Lois Brink says. Here, colorful canopies provide shade at the Wyman Elementary School playground.

Beyond that, placement of the play equipment is also crucial. “I liken it to balls in a pinball machine,” Brink said. “The kids are like the balls. And the more things there are for them to interact with, the more active they’ll be. But if the activities get moved too far apart from each other, then you lose the benefit. They like to bounce from one to another in short spurts of physical activity.”

By the end of 2012, every elementary school in Denver will have an upgraded Learning Landscapes playground incorporating all these things, thanks to voter approval of bond measures in 2003 and 2008.

The first one – at Bromwell Elementary, where Brink’s own children attended school – is now 11 years old, and is holding up well. That first playground grew out of Brink-the-mother’s concern that DPS playgrounds were uniformly dreadful in the 1990s. “It didn’t matter whether you were in a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood, everybody had a crappy playground,” she said.

Brink, a professor of landscape architecture, was uniquely suited to do something about it. She led a grassroots efforts at Bromwell to improve the school’s playground and recruited some of her landscape architecture students to design a play area tailored to the neighborhood’s needs. It took them several years and multiple fund-raising projects, but eventually Bromwell parents raised the $250,000 needed re-do the playground.

From there, the Learning Landscape movement spread across the district. Principals began agitating for

A welcoming gateway, such as at the McMeen Elementary playground, encourages community use of the playground after school and on weekends.

improved playgrounds in their schools. With the end of court-ordered school busing, Denver voters grasped the importance of once again turning schools into neighborhood community centers where children could gather before and after school, and how crucial nice playgrounds were to that effort.

Of course, transforming arid, pea gravel playgrounds into lush, state-of-the-art Learning Landscapes isn’t an inexpensive proposition. “It takes more than just moving in some monkey bars and a couple of pieces of new equipment,” said Brink. “Most sites needed irrigation. They needed new asphalt. The cost can be $400,000 to $500,000.”

At present, 52 DPS elementary schools have Learning Landscape playgrounds, and 10 more are slated to be completed in 2010.  Sometime during 2012, every DPS elementary school will have such a playground.

Beyond the physical benefits, community and social benefits are also accruing, Brink says. “Anecdotally, we know we’re seeing a reduction in bullying,” she said. “Now the kids aren’t all fighting for the one tether ball pole.”

For more information

Click here to read a “best practices” report on Learning Landscapes from Kaboom!, a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing play into the lives of children.

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”