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DIG Philly wins Knight Cities grant to reinvent schoolyards

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

DIG Philly is spreading the gospel of schoolyard conversion.

“Schoolyards are the next great urban spaces,” said Lois Brink, chief strategist for The Big SandBox, a nonprofit group that revitalizes schoolyards in Philadelphia.

The Big SandBox received a $149,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to launch its campaign DIG Philly. The effort partners with schools, parents, and neighborhoods to turn school’s outdoor play areas into community spaces, like gardens and parks.

The goal is to start a civic movement among Philadelphians that will lead to the renovation of the city’s 300 schoolyards into healthy, green spaces used by diverse members of the community.

It is one of seven grantees based in Philadelphia to receive a Knight Cities Challenge grant to make cities more successful. Overall, $5 million was given to 32 organizations in 26 cities with ties to Knight-owned newspapers.

Another recipient was South Philly’s Stoop, which received $147,000 to transform vacant space around the shuttered Bok High School into shared community space. The project is spearheaded by Lindsey Scannapieco, a developer who is also remaking the former school building into a maker space.

The Big SandBox sees the potential of schoolyards to take learning beyond the classroom and make it participatory. Gardens, for example, would serve as research tools and make environmental learning tangible.

“A big piece of what we’re trying to do is to change the perception of what a schoolyard is and what its power and potential can be, particularly in education,” said Brink.

Research shows that green schoolyards can also reduce disruptions in classrooms, improve nutritional education and increase physical education options. Added benefits of increased physical activity also include improved physical and emotional health.

At Hackett Elementary, the organization has partnered with principal Randi Klein-Davila to support the Friends of Hackett School group, so they can begin fundraising.

Klein-Davila said she sees potential in an outdoor environment that can create a sensory experience for special education students, which make up 27 percent of Hackett’s student body.

In addition, "the schoolyard will be an area for the community to unite as one," she said. "It’s such a wonderful way to bring everyone together."

In addition to Hackett, DIG Philly has been working with Kelley, McKinley, and Nebinger Elementary Schools through a partnership with the Philadelphia Water Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to install schoolyards with stormwater management.

Brink, a Philadelphia native and landscape architect by training, is already an expert in schoolyard transformations. Between 1998 and 2012, her organization Learning Landscapes raised $50 million to renovate every schoolyard in the Denver Public School District.

Philadelphia would be the only city, she said, to employ a teaching and learning component around schoolyard conversions, while also creating a space for community members to enjoy.

Camden Copeland is an intern at the Notebook.

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