2018 Honor Award
Chicago Public Schools
The John W. Cook Academy is a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade public elementary school located in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. In 2017, the Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands selected Cook Academy as the 12th schoolyard in Chicago to be transformed through the innovative “Space to Grow” program. As a collaboration with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Chicago Public Schools, Space to Grow selects schools and communities with significant flooding concerns.
Space to Grow is a Chicago-based initiative working with many of the city’s low-income communities to transform underutilized schoolyards into inspired play and learning spaces for students and vital outdoor places for the whole neighborhood to get together and reconnect with nature. The green schoolyards provide an opportunity for students to learn and grow outdoors, and for schools to support student health and physical activity through recreation, exploration, and play. All Space to Grow schoolyards include special materials, surfaces, and techniques that capture significant amounts of rain, which is especially helpful during heavy storms. The schoolyards also serve as an extension of the classroom, with opportunities for learning and exploration.
Before the transformation, Cook Academy’s expansive asphalt lot was flooded throughout most of the year and created a hot and unpleasant environment that left little room for creative play. The new schoolyard provides an engaging and educational outdoor space for recreation, outdoor learning, green infrastructure, and community engagement.
Today, the transformed schoolyard features a wide range of recreation opportunities for students of all ages, including a multi-purpose artificial turf field surrounded by a running track, as well as two half-court basketball courts. Nested into hills and mounds, a custom playground supports children ages 2-12 through a range of challenging and exploratory play features, including climbing structures and a multi-user swing. Chicago’s longest hopscotch court – nearly 100 feet long – guides visitors from the playground to the field. Nearby, game tables attract students and community members alike for study sessions, dominoes, and games of chess. A series of colored concrete seating blocks provide a casual gathering area or outdoor classroom, serving as an extension of the classroom for lessons ranging from science experiments to nutrition education.
At Cook Academy, green infrastructure and sustainable stormwater management address neighborhood-scale flooding issues through permeable surfaces and native plantings. A dry riverbed, affectionately named “Lake Cook” after the pool of water that previously flooded the asphalt yard through much of the year, now serves as dry stone stormwater storage and infiltration between the playground, basketball court, and multi-purpose field.
Since its opening in the fall of 2018, the John W. Cook Academy schoolyard has become the highlight of the school day for students and has helped engage and educate the nearby community. Once an expansive asphalt lot, the new schoolyard includes a lush landscape with native plants, walkways, and seating areas, recreation opportunities, and play spaces for children of all ages. Space to Grow is bringing wide-ranging benefits to Chicago neighborhoods through a unique partnership and community-focused process that has garnered attention across the nation.