Numerous studies have shown that exposure to and interaction with nature increases children’s attention spans, focus, creative thought processes, problem solving skills, self-discipline and self-regulation.
It makes sense, then, that nature ought to be a feature of the places where our children spend most of their days: schools, neighbourhoods and backyards. This is not always the case, and it can be especially easy to tell on hot summer days, when the lack of shade drives us inside to the aircon. However, if we put plants back into our cities, we can create cooler places for us all to live and play (local plants and animals included).
Greening Australia’s Cooling the Schools project is all about giving children opportunities to connect with nature, and empowering them to take action alongside their communities to create greener, cooler places where both people and nature can thrive.
Some urban areas in our cities are more vulnerable to heat stress and the Urban Heat Island Effect than others, because they have more built-up areas that retain heat, and fewer trees that provide shade and cool the air.
The hotspots are becoming more noticeable as our climate changes, temperatures rise and heatwaves intensify. However, adding more plants to these landscapes can help to tackle this effect, and create cooler spaces where people want to spend time outdoors.
Neighbourhoods that are low in canopy cover and vegetation also present some of the biggest opportunities to restore habitat for the city’s plants and animals, and improve the quality and diversity of green community spaces.
Adding more plants will not only help lower temperatures and support wildlife, it will boost physical, mental, and social health benefits for people, and particularly for children.
It’s been shown that green learning environments in schools and neighbourhoods — where children can feed their curiosity, explore and play — make a significant contribution to young people’s development, both through formally structured activities (skills in areas like Science, Technology, Geography and Mathematics) and informal play.
This is where many of their lifelong values, actions and beliefs are formed as they get inspired, run, play and undergo huge emotional, physical and social development.
The benefits of adding more nature into cities are supported by research, but ‘just add plants’ is not a solution on its own – children and their communities need to see the benefits for themselves, feel connected to nature, be empowered to green their spaces, and understand steps they can take to help their neighbourhoods adapt to a changing climate.
Schools play a vital role as hubs in our society’s social networks, bringing together people from all walks of life around a common interest: nurturing the next generation and helping lay the foundations of a bright future. That makes schools a great place to start when it comes to providing children with opportunities to connect with nature and feel the benefits firsthand – and then sharing that experience with the whole community.
That’s the concept behind Cooling the Schools, which thanks to $2.77 million in funding from the NSW Government under the Greening our City Premier’s Priority, is aiming to cool urban areas, establish native habitat, and give children opportunities to connect to nature in their neighbourhoods.
The project will run over three years and add thousands of plants to urban areas across Greater Sydney by working with school students, teachers and their communities. Together, we’ll plant in parks, community spaces and schools, increasing canopy cover, cooling playgrounds and neighbourhoods, and increasing critical habitat for local plants and animals as we go.
Greening Australia is partnering with Western Sydney University to identify hotspots in Sydney to help us prioritise schools in neighbourhoods with the lowest canopy cover and greatest vulnerability to the Urban Heat Island Effect. We will then approach schools in those communities about joining the project. We are partnering with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to integrate conservation curriculum materials into the project and maximise learning opportunities too.
The broader community will also be invited to get involved, through planting days in local green spaces. Those plants can be revisited by locals and enjoyed into the future, and we hope will inspire some plantings in streetscapes and backyards too.
By creating parks, community spaces and schools that are greener and shadier, we are building better learning environments, healthier places for active play and providing a direct experience of what a healthy urban environment can be for the whole community.
This project is funded by the NSW Government, through the NSW Premier’s Priority of Increasing the tree canopy and green cover across Greater Sydney by planting one million trees by 2022.
The Cooling the Schools project is part of Greening Australia’s Nature in Cities program. As climate change and population growth intensify pressures on our urban areas, we are working with partners across Australia to create greener, more liveable cities where both people and nature thrive.
For more information, please feel free to send us an online query.
Dr. Michelle Frankel is Greening Australia’s Community Conservation and Education Manager. She holds a PhD in behavioural ecology and was formerly the director of a nature education centre with the National Audubon Society, the leading bird conservation organisation in the US. Michelle has been leading urban and community-based conservation and environmental education initiatives for the past 20 years in the US, Israel and now Australia.
As Operations Lead for Greening Australia’s Nature in Cities program in Sydney, Chris manages an elite team of conservation professionals who are working hard to enhance nature and maximise the benefits it brings to the people of Metropolitan Sydney.
Michael works as Science and Planning Manager for our Nature in Cities program. He holds qualifications in Landscape Management and Conservation and has worked for Greening Australia for more than eight years in a variety of roles.