Children at two West Side elementary schools, Leland — at California and Washington Street — and Cather — near Congress and Laramie — are playing and learning on innovative, new water-saving playgrounds with vegetable gardens, porous surfaces and native plants. 

The Space to Grow program has three purposes: 1) to keep storm water out of the city sewer system, streets and basements; 2) to promote healthy eating and exercising, and 3) to encourage children, parents  and neighbors to enjoy being outdoors. 

Space to Grow is a collaboration between Open lands and the Healthy Schools Campaign. Financial support and partnership comes from Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the Chicago Department of Water Management and Chicago Public Schools. 

Kenneth Varner, community engagement coordinator for Healthy Schools Campaign, said nine schools have joined Space to Grow since the program started in 2013. Six more are scheduled this summer, with a target of 34 schools by 2021.

Varner said Healthy Schools had been advocating for more physical activity and outdoor learning for city dwellers, when the group realized many schools don’t have good places for children to play. Playgrounds can be unsafe and in disrepair, or offer only flat asphalt areas for students to play on. Space to Grow offers improvements in low-income communities of color, involving local people in the planning and maintenance rather than “somebody with money coming in and building something without asking.” 

Kirstin LoVerde, Openlands Education Programs Manager, explained that “before they do any designing or building at a school, Space to Grow interviews administrators, teachers, students, recess monitors, parents and neighbors — and we give all that information to the designers. 

“They show the stakeholders a draft drawing, unique to each school, for comment. Once the school’s principal and CPS approve the final design, CPS hires contractors to do the hard landscaping in the summer so students, parents, neighbors and community organizations can join in planting and mulching.” 

LoVerde said that the organization develops programs that the schools can sustain by themselves. So far, they’ve worked with Big Green, formerly called Kitchen Community — an organization that helps 150 CSP schools setup vegetable gardens and shows teachers how to garden. 

“We teach healthy ways to grow, wash and prepare the food. And how it’s a healthier lifestyle to reach for carrots rather than Red Hots,” said Leland Principal Turon Ivy. “I needed to lose weight myself, so I had to change my own eating habits and start working out. Students would ask me all the time about having big muscles. It’s part of being a role model.” 

Students enjoy the playground’s climbing equipment and its “hills” or “dunes” made of artificial permeable material to absorb rainwater. They ride bikes and run up and down the hills. The vegetable garden did not yield enough for many students to sample the vegetables. Some of the native plants spread too fast and became weeds. Pulling them out is a learning experience, but soon gets old, said two students, Quan and Abraham. 

They’re looking forward to growing flowers in the garden this year. Both boys are considering medical industry careers — Quan in hospital billing and Abraham as a doctor. 

Principal Ivy said that the outdoor area contributes to the school’s STEM curriculum. The school has about 430 students, pre-K through 8th grade. Students use math to figure how deep to plant seeds, science and technology to see how various amounts of light affect germination. 

They also learn that the playground holds 150,000 gallons of water after a rain, allowing it to slowly seep into the ground and keeping it out of the storm sewer system.

Building on their experience at Leland, Space to Grow’s design at Cather keeps the playground and garden together, with a smaller, more controllable space for the prairie plants.  

A small interior courtyard now sports permeable hills and playground equipment. The bigger back schoolyard has the raised beds for the vegetable garden, a running track surrounded by water-absorbing prairie plants, and a fenced basketball court.  

As the school community began using the space, they came up with more projects. Trash and recycling bins appeared, and fruit trees are in the works. 

Barbara McGowan, who lives near Leland, serves as a Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which provided $400,000 of the funds to rebuild the Leland School playground. She and other commissioner’s hosted eighth-graders from Leland for a Black History month program. 

“Space to Grow is a wonderful program,” she said. “Besides helping us do the job of controlling storm water, it’s a win-win for students, teachers and the community.”


"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years.  She has led classes for young and old on...