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Heinrich Introduces Living Schoolyards Act To Create Unique, Healthy Learning Opportunities

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the Living Schoolyards Act that will enable schools to completely re-envision their outdoor school grounds with the goal of providing more hands-on learning opportunities, strengthening local ecological systems, and giving every single child a place where they can learn and play outside.

“One of the most important lessons that we learned from the pandemic is just how critical the outdoors can be to our mental and physical well-being. For many kids, the closest outdoor space is not a national or urban park, but the spaces right outside their classroom doors,” said Heinrich. “The Living Schoolyards Act will help schools develop outdoor learning environments that introduce more kids to new experiences on their journey to academic success.”

The Living Schoolyards Act would establish an Outdoor Learning Spaces Grants program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, to allow schools or districts to create outdoor classrooms and learning spaces. Schools will be able to use these funds to install canopies, tents, open-sided structures, electricity, generators, furniture, storage, Wi-Fi nodes and charging stations, outdoor food and distribution facilities, gardens, and weather-related clothing.

The Living Schoolyards Projects will be designed through a two-step process for school districts to apply for these grants through the U.S. Department of Education:

  • During the planning grant phase, school districts will develop a master plan to turn all or some of their schoolyards into Living Schoolyard Projects. This process must involve community input and factor in ecological goals, educational and health outcomes for students, and relevant community partners.
  • In the implementation phase, school districts will build the Living Schoolyards and offer professional development to educators to help them incorporate the outdoor spaces into their teaching.

Living Schoolyards accomplish a number of important goals including: 

  • Growing healthy foods, trees, and pollinator plants.
  • Conserving water, creating wildlife habitat, and increasing climate resilience.
  • Providing children with opportunities to observe objects found in nature, document season’s changes, and conduct outdoor experiments.
  • Improving mental health and the ability to pay attention for children and adults.
  • Displaying items students find in nature, such as leaves, seeds, and fruits.
  • Creating space for students to prepare skits, plays, murals, drawings, and sculptures that celebrate nature, including its animals, plants, and landscapes.

The Living Schoolyards Act is supported by Green Schoolyards America, Environmental Education New Mexico, New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division, Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, ABQ Backyard Refuge Program Director, Friends of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Bosque Education Guide, Audubon SouthwestAmigos de la Sevilleta, Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, and KABOOM!.

“America’s public school grounds cover an estimated 2 million acres and play a central role in children’s daily lives. Greening school grounds by removing asphalt and adding trees is a cost effective way to directly protect students from the effects of extreme heat due to climate change,” said Sharon Danks, CEO and founder of Green Schoolyards America. “We applaud Senator Heinrich’s leadership on this groundbreaking legislation.”

Green Schoolyards America is a nonprofit organization that collaborates with school districts to transform asphalt-covered school grounds into nature-rich places that improve learning and health.

"I fully endorse this legislation on behalf of Cottonwood Gulch. I am especially happy to see the ‘relevant community partners’ section of this summary. Thanks for your work on this, and thanks to Senator Heinrich for his leadership,” said Jordan Stone, Executive Director for Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.

“KABOOM! believes every child should have equitable access to engaging, enriching, and empowering outdoor spaces for learning and play. The Living Schoolyards Act will offer local school districts and nonprofits the support they need to create and foster outdoor spaces that will benefit kids and the local community. We know that kids who get to spend time outside when they’re young grow to better appreciate their environment and their surrounding community over their lifetime,” said Lysa Ratliff, CEO of KABOOM!.