Sherman School: A rural Californian landscape… in a city Elementary School

Space for a whole class to congregate amongst the citrus trees.

I was lucky enough to visit Sherman School in September 2011 as part of the International Green Schoolyards Conference.

How did they do it?

Compost beds in a series so that compost in various stages of decomposition can be observed and moved.

The grounds at Sherman School are testament to the power of community collaboration, but they also could not have happened without the vision and energy of individuals with a real passion for taking learning beyond the classroom.  Project evaluations from school grounds organisations across the world (including LTL in the UK) demonstrate that the most successful and sustainable projects are those that harness the enthusiasm and skills of the whole school community, but that also benefit from the sure-footed support of a school Principal or Head.  At Sherman, the Principal understood the improvements a playground transformation could effect on the curriculum and on children’s wellbeing, and in 2004 sought support from the school community.

Linda in full flow during our visit.

They rallied round, with parents fundraising on a grand scale, local businesses donating products, time and money and the school board agreeing to employ a spectacularly charismatic Garden Educator, Linda Myers, who is part funded by the parents’ association.  The Green Schoolyard committee has been a key driver of change at Sherman and still plays a vital role in the development and care of the grounds.  Usually that just means ‘fundraising’ but this committee most definitely gets its hands dirty, working alongside children and staff to shape and maintain the spaces.

Poetry inspired by spending time in the lush grounds at Sherman Elementary

Investment in the grounds has been significant; along with a number of other San Fran schools, the Proposition A voter-approved bond system in San Francisco provided $100,000 to Sherman to enable it to upgrade its facilities.  On the Green Schoolyards Conference tours, we visited four schools that had benefited in this way, and it was clear that generous financial investment married with passion and skill can result in stunning, practical, ecologically sound green schoolyards.  At some schools, the missing link in all this is a clear purpose – many school grounds projects become unloved because they’re unused; little or no thought being given at the start to why changes are to be made, or how the space will be used, by whom, how often and essentially, who will look after it.  At Sherman, intelligent leadership and long term planning by the Green Schoolyard committee has ensured the integration of this space into every child’s learning and every playtime.

A view towards the composting bins, taking in the ‘top’ pond and the whole class seating area.

The transformation design was the work of a specialist green schoolyard designer, Sharon Danks, who worked alongside 450 Architects and landscape architects Miller Company.  They were able to create a design that altered the space almost beyond recognition (check out the before and after pics on the Proposition A website above).  In her book Asphalt to Ecosystems, Sharon says, “in the process of converting their paved, flat yard into a hilly green schoolyard, 68% of the impermeable surfaced on the playground [was removed].  The renovation replaced approximately 9.500 sq feet of asphalt with a rolling hillside filled with plants, mulch and permeable pathways that allow rainwater to soak into the ground”

The school and its local community did much of the actual landscaping themselves, with the help of landscaping professionals who undertook the major works.  The Garden Educator, Linda, organises work days and celebrations, runs gardening classes and plans on-going maintenance.  This paid role is key to the sustainability of the garden, but even at Sherman, the budget faces cuts due to the difficult financial climate.

Several of the schools we visited in the Bay Area had these deliciously tactile relief prints of plants, set into the concrete pathways.


How is the space used?

The transformed playground presents a varied and compelling vista onto the street.  A mixture of hard and soft landscaping with formal and informal interventions creates an interesting space that has successfully addressed a number of the school’s identified needs.  The San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (SFGSA) worked with the whole school community to create a brief, and the ability to grow and harvest food crops was high on the priority list.  Growing spaces at Sherman are already mature and productive, as well as self-sustaining; the school retains and uses its own seeds, cooks the produce and uses this ‘from fork to fork’ process to teach children about key sustainability issues including water conservation, food miles, production techniques and healthy eating.

This large pond is fed by a waterfall and makes use of recycled and ‘captured’ water. Huge, smooth boulders around the edge protect the pond from accidental ‘visits’ by children and provide the children with wonderfully shady, sociable and playful places to pass the time.

It’s not just about growing food, however.  Their landscape architect helped them transform a typical asphalt playground into an outstanding and fully accessible landscape for learning and play.   A key element of the grounds at Sherman is the bold use of water, and the ornamental and wildlife planting that surrounds the water features is spectacular and purposeful.

On a searingly hot day, the playground offered shady and sheltered spots as well as sunny seating.  Gorgeously tactile stone seat / basins contained just enough water to splash fingers through and the huge grasses, ferns and Gunneras swished in the breeze.  Dusty paths trail through planted areas, down steps and around raised beds containing fat, shiny tomatoes and irresistible (to me at least) limes and lemons.

This is a playground that a whole year group could make use of a the same time; it feels vast, but also contains smaller, more intimate spaces where small groups can work together or a solitary youngster might compose poetry inspired by their school grounds.  Seating ranges from long curved timber benches to accommodate twenty or more, to tiny boulders clustered together in the shade.  Planter edges serve socialising

The upper pond – partly hidden by planting and connected to other elements of the landscape by undulating and twisting pathways through the vegetation.

Gardening, watering and maintenance equipment is accessible at several places around the site and recycling is firmly embedded at Sherman (as it appears to be throughout the Bay Area) with a gated recycling zone with over a dozen wheely bins clearly in everyday use.  The Garden Co-ordinator was very proud of Sherman’s series of connected composting bins and I admit to being impressed with the almost industrial scale they are maintaining.  There is plenty to compost in the grounds here so it does need to be pretty efficient and the system of moving compost along a series of top-lidded marine ply boxes is working for them – even if it is very labour intensive.


What are the lessons for other schools?

Note the surface – a dusty loose dirt, entirely in keeing with the design and spirit of this landscape. Not suitable for every school grounds – but here in the dry, warm climate of the Bay Area, it works perfectly.

There’s no doubt that the phenomenal changes at Sherman School would not have been possible without the significant funds allocated via the Bond scheme.  As with many projects on this scale, it’s important to assess the achievement in manageable chunks – not many schools will ever benefit from $100,000 to improve an existing playground, but many, if not all schools will be able to find something in this space that speaks of their own aspirations.

I think the use of water – the celebration of water, in fact – is special at Sherman.  I can’t think of a single school I’ve visited where standing water is a core and unfenced element of a main playground.  Rightly, schools and settings are careful to use water with a healthy respect for the real risks it can pose; at Sherman they’ve innovated to make it possible for children and young people to freely enjoy the sensory pleasures of water.

Waterfall taking water from the upper level to the main pond area via a series of boulder ‘steps’. A flight of real steps runs close by, with mature, statement planting between the two.

They’ve also emphasised the essential and special nature of water; the part it plays in regenerating our world and the importance of conserving it wisely are of paramount importance.  Children love water – they love being in it and around it; they love watering their garden and drinking cold fresh water; the sound of water helps calm nerves and the creatures that make their homes in it are of endless fascination.

I left the school site feeling that if I took nothing else from this snapshot of life at Sherman School, I would at least take away a different perspective on how water can be managed to provide a joyful intervention for children and nature.


More information: has lots of pictures of the children creating and caring for their garden areas, plus some captivating pics of the garden when it was new, taken from the roof of the school. for details of the approach the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance uses in its transformation projects, plus case studies and other useful resources. for resources and information about growing food and other plants in school grounds.




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