Author and green schoolyard advocate Sharon Gamson Danks. Photo: Maia and Ayden Danks.

In the course of her travels researching her new book Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, Sharon Gamson Danks was struck by two things: First, the United States is a world leader in school food gardens and Berkeley is firmly at the epicenter of that movement.

And second, the U.S. lags far behind other countries when it comes to building green schoolyards with eco-friendly aspects beyond a produce patch — in other words spaces that encourage play with potential risk. We’re talking less asphalt and metal structures, and more nature nooks and shaded ponds.

An environmental planner, Danks and landscape architect Lisa Howard run Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, which specializes in designing ecological outdoor play spaces. They incorporate ideas Danks picked up from her playground adventures overseas.

The UC Berkeley graduate (she has masters in both landscape architecture and city planning) has visited over 200 green schoolyards and parks in North America, Europe, Great Britain, and Japan, where she witnessed their impact on children’s play, education, and health.

Danks and Howard are wrapping up a master plan project for 29 schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, which is revamping many of its playgrounds thanks to a chunk of funds from two bond measures. Danks has worked on dozens of other green schoolyard projects.

Children at Malcolm X School tend beds and harvest vegetables in the garden. Photo: Sharon Danks.

Danks, 39, lives in the Berkeley hills with her husband and two expert playground testers, and tends a garden that boasts 15 different fruit trees. She documents the bounty she harvests in a journal and on her site Edible Places.

Danks also serves on the advisory board of the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and will speak on Saturday, at 5 p.m., at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show with colleagues Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle, co-authors of How to Grow a School Garden.

We met this week in the patio at Berkeley’s Café Leila.

Can you give some examples of model green schoolyards around the globe?

At the Coombes Primary School in England the children have woods to explore, a pond, and a fire pit in their play area, which is near a large patch of stinging nettles. On the day I visited, the children were making stinging nettle pasta on an outdoor stove. The only people who got stung were the adults. As the director points out: how will we raise capable, responsible humans if we don’t present them with some risk in their environments?

Americans confuse safety and liability but these are not the same things.

While on that subject, it’s amazing that a place like Adventure Playground survives in such a litigious country. How do you rate that play space?

I love Adventure Playground and am happy that it exists here in Berkeley. My two daughters’ favorite things to do there are ride the zip-line, climb the net structure, and use various built pieces as forts. It provides a wonderful, unstructured environment for kids that allows them to play in challenging ways and express their creativity and imagination as they explore the site. I think it’s great the playground provides real tools for children to use, and an appropriate environment to use them in.

What about other overseas child-centric playground ecosystems of note?

In Lund, Sweden there’s an after-school recreation center with a permaculture theme. It’s a superb example of green building techniques in a progressives town, not unlike Berkeley. The barn for the farm animals, built by middle school students, is a wooden beam and clay structure; the site has solar panels and wind turbines. It was built  over 10 years ago. It would be considered LEED platinum by today’s standards.

In the heart of Tokyo — you couldn’t get a more dense city — I went to a school where an extensive nature study area and wetland garden with a recirculating spring covers more than one third of the primary school grounds. Their edible garden includes a rice paddy, garden vegetables such as taro and herbs like shiso. They also grow a green curtain of vines each year in planter boxes along the school building wall, which is both aesthetically pleasing and provides needed shade.

Every Berkeley public school has an edible garden. Do any stand out in your mind?

Well, I’m partial to Rosa Parks Elementary, since my daughters go there. I’ve volunteered to help create a green schoolyard master plan. We have buy-in from many parents and teachers; it’s a compelling example of community stewardship. Garden teacher Tanya Stiller just installed a rainwater harvesting barrel. We’ve put in nibbling gardens, solar panels, a rock border, a pond with a solar-panel driven fountain, wooden fences and picnic benches.

What garden teacher Rivka Mason does at Malcolm X is fabulous; it’s one of the first places I bring visitors. I’m impressed by her teaching style and she listens to the kids and runs with their ideas. A whole generation of children are growing up on “weedos” (veggie burritto-like wraps made from sour sorrel, beet greens, or dinosaur kale).

The LeConte farm and garden, which also includes animals — in the past goats and ducks, currently chickens and rabbits — has a micro-climate that’s conducive to a long-growing season. Founded in 1982, the program is also one of the oldest continuously tended school gardens in California.

Honestly, I think all the schools in Berkeley offer creative garden curriculum with modest resources.

What about the Edible Schoolyard?

They’ve accomplished so much and it’s a model for what a cooking and gardening program can look like with significant resources. I’ve volunteered in the garden, which is always changing and evolving, as gardens should. The students at that school are free to roam the entire garden, not just tend one particular bed or plot. The outdoor classroom under the ramada is wonderful.

I’ve also volunteered in the kitchen and the teacher, Esther Cook, is impressive — both in how she ties cooking to the curriculum and the way she connects with the kids. I look forward to my daughters having those experiences.

Where do you source your own food?

In addition to foraging from our own backyard, we receive a weekly CSA box from Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley and we buy most of our meat directly from Wind Dancer Ranch. We frequent the farmers’ market too.

What’s next?

I’m planning an international conference in September, co-hosted by the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance  and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which will take place in Berkeley and San Francisco. We’ll offer public tours and show visitors what we’re doing here to make children’s outdoor environments places of vibrant exploration, challenge, and wonder.

The San Francisco Flower & Garden Show runs through March 27 at the San Mateo Event Center. Many Berkeley food and garden folks will do demos or give talks, including Alice Waters and Esther Cook from the Edible Schoolyard, Sean Baker from Gather Restaurant, Chris Dehenzel from UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and Andrea Hurd of Mariposa Gardening and Design.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.