What’s happening in Rainbow Schools?

Schoolyards get makeover just in time for outdoor learning

There wasn’t an Ugliest Schoolyard Contest winner this year due to the pandemic, but that didn’t stop the City of Greater Sudbury’s Regreening Advisory Panel from cultivating a plan.

They worked with local businesses and sponsors to perform maintenance on schoolyards re-greened in recent years. Volunteers and workers visited schools to trim branches, replace trees, weed gardens, add shrubs, plant perennials, and replenish mulch.

With some lessons moving to the great fresh outdoors this fall, the makeover was well timed and well received. These natural settings have become perfect places for students to ponder, play, practice and produce while observing physical distancing.

“No school wants to be known for its ugliest schoolyard,” said Director of Education Norm Blaseg. “But when you win the Ugliest Schoolyard Contest, it is an honour. We commend VETAC and the entire team of gardeners and sponsors for the wonderful work they have done in Rainbow Schools over the years along with our students, staff and volunteers.”

Before the Ugliest Schoolyard Contest, schoolyards across Greater Sudbury were more concrete and asphalt than trees and gardens. But what had been a less than ideal environment for students was a blank canvas full of potential for Wayne Hugli and the team behind Sudbury’s Ugliest Schoolyard Contest.

“When this contest began, schoolyards were some of the most barren spaces in our city,” said Hugli. “Most were covered with asphalt and gravel to make them low maintenance. We wanted to make the schoolyards more interesting, inviting and environmentally friendly for the students and staff.”

Inspired by the Canadian Biodiversity Institute’s Ugliest Schoolyard Contest in Ottawa, Greater Sudbury’s Regreening Advisory Panel, VETAC, created a sub-committee to organize a local version of the contest in 2005. Schools from all local school boards could apply for the team’s assistance in schoolyard re-greening efforts. That first year, they received 20 applications.

In the 15 years since the contest began, 47 schools across Greater Sudbury have been transformed with gardens, trees, green spaces and outdoor seating. The initiative has also garnered support from dozens of local businesses, volunteers, and major sponsors like XSTRATA Nickel and Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations (Glencore).

According to the Tree Canada Foundation, regreening efforts in schoolyards allow students to connect with and learn about the environment, create natural outdoor learning spaces, promote positive behaviour, and foster a sense of stewardship.

“As a classroom teacher and teacher-librarian, I have seen the need for the addition of green spaces to schoolyards, and the many benefits of involving students in outdoor education,” said Hugli. “We hope that with these green spaces, schoolyards will be safer, healthier, and more environmentally friendly places for education and recreation.”

Since the contest began, 19 schoolyards in Rainbow Schools have been brought to life.

Princess Anne Public School won the contest in 2017. Vice-Principal Elisa McNeil says the schoolyard’s green spaces provide unique educational opportunities.

“With technology increasingly taking up more of our free time, we feel it is important for the students to spend quality time outside enjoying, learning and being comfortable in nature,” she said. “Our green space is an area where students can explore, socialize, learn and get active.”

When the Ugliest Schoolyard team re-greened Princess Anne’s schoolyard, they planted an Indigenous Healing Garden. Students are learning about the practical uses and healing properties of plants such as sage and sweet grass. They are also learning about edible plants such as rhubarb and berries.

“It’s an opportunity to share Indigenous knowledge about the traditional healing plants,” said McNeil. “The garden has become an incredible teaching tool. Students learn how to take care of the plants and watch them grow. The time and care students put into the garden has taught them some key character traits, like respect and responsibility.”

Last year, students from Lansdowne Public School were thrilled to work with the re-greening team to design the green spaces for their schoolyard when they won the contest. Students were part of the planning and the planting. With gardening gloves in hand, they worked alongside the professionals, placing hardy perennials in garden beds while volunteers took care of the larger trees and shrubs.

Principal Jennifer Harvey says that being able to participate so heavily in the process has given students ownership.

“Our students feel a strong sense of purpose for their schoolyard,” she said. “They not only get to learn about nature in a hands-on way, they get to immerse themselves in it. They are able to watch the growth process of the plants, which is very rewarding.”

She says the schoolyard has been brought back to life, not only by greenery, but by community.

“Our school in the downtown core is aesthetically pleasing, which has resulted in a renewed sense of pride in the neighbourhood. Our schoolyard has become a gathering place, with many more families using the space.”

She adds: “The regreening of Lansdowne Public School has only just begun and the Ugliest Schoolyard Contest was the catalyst for change.”

Director of Education Norm Blaseg thanked Wayne Hugli, the City of Greater Sudbury’s Supervisor of Land Reclamation Tina McCaffrey, VETAC, the participating schools and the sponsors for turning schoolyards into beautiful spaces for teaching and learning.

“A lot of work has been done over many years and our students and the communities that we serve are the real beneficiaries,” said Director Blaseg. “We are truly grateful.”

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Media Contact:

Nicole Charette, Senior Advisor,
Corporate Communications and Strategic Planning,
Rainbow District School Board, 705-674-3171, ext. 7217.