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A Mother’s Plea for Waffle Trees (Part 1)

Our Neighborhood School (and probably yours, too)

Portland, OR, USA

My kid’s school playground sucks. That’s OK, yours probably does too.

What would make them better? Answer #1: Less blacktop, more Waffle Trees

The Bloom: What’s the attraction?

To be honest, the attraction of our local school playground is mostly that it’s close. That, and my kid goes to school there. You wouldn’t seek out this playground otherwise. That said, we spend a lot of time there after and so do many other families in our neighborhood.

The Nectar: What’s sweet about this place?

The best part of our school playground is the Waffle Tree. No, it doesn’t grow waffles (that would be really rad!) It is a cedar tree that splits down low so that even little kids can climb up into the branches. The tree has played many roles, but the most enduring is that of arboreal waffle window.

The Pollen: What observations might pollinate good ideas elsewhere?

I usually write about fun, free-choice learning environments to visit with kids. But, I wanted to write about school playgrounds for two reasons. One, even when they suck, most families end up on school playgrounds anyway. Two, they may be the only free-choice play spaces at the school, possibly even the whole neighborhood.

Now, I’m grateful that my child’s school has any trees, let alone fun ones for climbing and pretend play. But, during school, the Waffle Tree is off limits. It is in the far corner of the lower playground which makes teachers uncomfortable because it’s hard to monitor at recess. In fact, students aren’t even allowed on the lower field where the grass and trees are most of the year. During the soggy season the kids are relegated to the paved upper play area. There, they can play on a prefabricated play structure, basketball courts, and painted lines on the asphalt.

Of course, when we talk about the quality of our schools, we usually focus on what is inside, not outside. We hope that the curriculum and school community support the academic growth and social development that our kids need to thrive. Most of us don’t think much about how the playground impacts their educational success. But it does.

There are many facets to how outdoor time impacts students, but the most basic is that it is OUTSIDE. More and more research indicates that being outside, especially in outdoor spaces with natural elements like trees, plants, sand, water, and open sky, can have a huge impact on kids and teachers.

Over the last 30 years, psychologist Ming Kuo and other researchers have studied the effects of nature on our bodies and our brains. She found that having trees and other plants around our schools and homes decreases stress, increases immune function, promotes prosocial behavior, and increases social capital (Vedantam 2018, Strife and Downey 2009). Yes, we’re nicer, happier, healthier, more focused people when we have easy access to green spaces. And, if kids are only going to experience nature in one place, the impact is greatest when natural elements are around their school (Dadvand et al. 2015).

So, that little Waffle Tree is serving up more than imaginary breakfast foods. It provides a refuge for kids--a wooded corner where kids can feel calmer, healthier, and ready to engage with their peers and teachers. The Waffle Tree outside helps kids do the academic and social work we need them to do inside.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one ready to rip up the blacktop. Our principal is a smart woman who follows the research and is empathetic to kids’ needs and desires. She recognizes that our playground is a missed opportunity. So, she asked the PTA to help change it.

What’s the vision? We need are more logs and boulders and trees and pine cones. We need places for kids to breath in the smell of wood and watch light filter through branches.

And, if all goes well, I’ll be writing an update to this post in a year (or three) revising the intro to say: “My kid’s school playground rocks! That’s OK, yours can too.”


Dadvand, Payam , Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen, Mikel Esnaola, Joan Forns, Xavier Basagaña, Mar Alvarez-Pedrerol, Ioar Rivas, Mónica López-Vicente, Montserrat De Castro Pascual, Jason Su, Michael Jerrett, Xavier Querol, Jordi Sunyer. 2015. “Green spaces and cognitive development in children.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun , 112 (26) 7937-7942.

Strife, Susan and Liam Downey. 2009. "Childhood Development and Access to Nature: A New Direction for Environmental Inequality Research” Organ Environ Mar; 22(1): 99–122.

Vedantam, Shankar, host “Our Better Nature: How The Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life.” Hidden Brain, NPR, 10 September 2018.

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