April 30, 2024

A Climate Ready Schools guide to designing for shade


Climate Ready Schools are schools and school grounds designed for improved learning, improved health and climate resilience.

Climate Ready Schools provide multi-solving benefits for students, communities and the environment. Through climate-adaptive design, they improve drainage, reduce flooding and provide shade and cooling.

Climate Ready Schools transform school grounds across Canada into nature-rich play and learning environments for children and their communities. This work builds on Evergreen’s legacy of providing healthy school grounds for children that improve their wellbeing, increase opportunities for learning and respond to a changing climate.  

Canadian school grounds are typically places with little to no vegetation or flood management, with few large trees to provide shade for children as they play and learn outdoors. Elementary school children spend approximately 25% of their day outdoors, including before and after school, lunch and recess breaks. The lack of shade on school grounds is of increasing concern given the amount of time children spend outside and the rising temperatures due to climate change. 

Climate Ready Schools and the power of shade 

Climate change presents an urgent challenge to our planet and society. Schools and school boards have a vital role to play in helping the school community, students and staff understand how they can take action to build climate resilience.  

By designing climate-adaptive school grounds, we can improve the health and wellbeing of children and their communities while also mitigating, adapting and building resilience to the effects of climate change. 

Climate Ready Schools involve a school-wide engagement approach to designing green school grounds that focuses on increasing opportunities for nature connection and hands-on learning, meeting children’s developmental needs, improving climate resiliency and creating a welcoming place for all. 

Traditional school grounds contain large expanses of asphalt and concrete with little for students to do, and rarely address the impacts of climate change. With rising temperatures and increasingly severe heat events in cities, school grounds can be doing more for our children, the community and the environment. 

Climate Ready Schools draw on the Sponge School Ground Strategy which aims to design school grounds to better absorb rainfall to mitigate flooding and moderate temperatures. Similar to the sponge city concept, green infrastructure and permeable surfaces are leveraged to better prepare school grounds for the impacts of climate change.  

Extreme heat can have a particularly strong impact on school-age children because they rarely demonstrate shade-seeking behavior and are less effective at self-regulating temperatures than adults. Children spend approximately 25% of their school days outdoors, typically during the peak sun and temperature periods (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m) and are particularly vulnerable to heat stress and hot environments. Extreme heat impacts on school grounds include sunburns and burns from hot surfaces, thermal discomfort, sunstroke and exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). One of the most effective means of protecting students from UVR is to plant shade trees where they play and congregate — for example, around playground equipment, near asphalt play areas and along sports fields — to offer students several protection options. 

Thermally-comfortable school grounds consider heat illness, sun safety, thermal burns, air pollution and other factors to ensure a safe environment for both warm and cold weather. The availability of shade is an important aspect of thermally comfortably school grounds, and reduces solar radiation exposure, increases cooling and reduces surface temperatures amongst other benefits. 

Benefits of shade

The quality of shade matters and should reflect the needs and existing natural and built environments. Consider the movement of the sun and make sure the shade is where you want it when you want it. Conducting a shade audit can determine existing shade usage patterns and assess and identify optimal shading from both natural and built shade structures. There are many benefits of shade including: 

  • Protection from ultraviolet radiation 
  • Lowering surface temperatures and keeping children cool during extreme heat events 
  • Opportunities to use school grounds for various physical activities for longer periods of time 

Planters and tree

Natural shade

Examples of natural shade elements include: 

  • Trees 
  • Shrubs 
  • Vegetation 

Natural shade is generally cooler than built shade as vegetation does not store heat and the evaporation of water through the leaves creates cooling. Natural shade can help improve the environment and aesthetic of the space with lower capital costs. Natural infrastructure can have positive effects on children’s health and behaviour and foster awareness and connection to the natural world.

  • Plant trees in areas where children spend most of their time:
    – Active play zones (e.g., asphalt, high-traffic paths with compacted-soil)
    – Play structures
    – Drop-off and pick-up locations
    – Small and large seating (e.g., benches, outdoor classrooms, theatres) 
  • If a choice is necessary, priority should be given to shading paved play areas to reduce UVR and increase cooling. 
  • Source and plant hardy native trees and shrubs to increase shade where children play.
    – Design for diversity and avoid monoculture planting (planting a single species).  
  • Check that there is a source of water nearby.  
  • Choose salt hardy species.
    – Be mindful that trees planted in paved areas may be at risk of winter salt damage. 
  • Plant trees on level ground to mitigate erosion, excessive compaction and exposed roots. 
  • When selecting trees and shrubs, consider:
    – Sun or shade requirements
    – Size of the planting area
    – Proximity to overhead wires and rooftop solar panels
    – Wood strength — softwood tree limbs are susceptible to breakage
    – Soil and moisture requirements
    – Salt tolerance
    – Leaf size 

shade sails in a school ground

Built shade

Examples of built shade elements include: 

  • Pergolas 
  • Trellises 
  • Gazebos 
  • Shade sails 

Built shade can be permanent or temporary to best meet the needs of the space, uses and number of children. It may have higher upfront costs. Planting natural elements such as vines or vegetation on a built shade structure can provide additional seasonal shade coverage.

  • Ensure that the roof pitch and height from the ground provide the maximum amount of shade. 
  • Consider snow loads in winter and water runoff from the roof. 
  • Be aware that locating these structures next to buildings could allow access to the roof, possibly inviting undesirable or unsafe activity, including vandalism. 
  • Consider adding elements to existing structures to provide shade, such as an awning or pergola off a school or portable wall. 

A family is standing under trees in a public space

Guiding principles for designing with shade

  • Both natural and built shade should be implemented where it is manageable and sustainable. 
  • Consider a summer watering program for maintaining planted trees and vegetation. 
  • Be sure to include the application of mulch around the base of trees in your annual tree care plan. 
  • Be aware of…
    – Fire routes and service access routes
    – Snow clearing and storage locations
    – Possible future expansions of the building or parking lot
    – Addition of more portables, including move-in and move-out routes
    – Student safety (e.g., sightlines, night lighting, security cameras)
    – Building envelope maintenance and construction access
    – Tree care, especially access to a water source
    – Tree-planting distances from built objects 

Tree planting distances from built objects 

The following standards help ensure student safety, maintenance and emergency access and healthy growing conditions for your tree plantings. All distances are measured as a radius and are expressed as minimum distances. Trees should be planted: 

  • 2 metres from
    – Benches, seating stones or rocks
    – Interior fences
    – Asphalt areas and walkways 
  • 3 metres from
    – Underground utilities 
    – Aboveground utilities 
  • 6 metres from
    – Soccer and football boundary lines
    – Fire hydrants 
  • 7 metres from
    – Other trees (or at a distance appropriate to the selected species)
    – Fences of adjacent residential perimeter neighbours
    – Building foundations
    – Running tracks (no trees should be planted inside the track area) 
  • 10 metres from
    – Flagpoles

How to create a shade strategy 

Shade is a simple and effective solution to combating extreme heat and other impacts of climate change. Conduct a shade audit and follow these steps to help create a shade strategy for your school or school board! 

Adopt and implement a board-wide, sun-smart shade policy.


  • Mandate the provision of shade through planting shade trees where children play, building shade structures and placing seating in shade.
  • Conduct shade audits to set goals and measure progress. 
  • Enforce measures such as wearing hats, sunscreen, sunglasses and appropriate clothing. 

Education :

  • Work with parents, trustees, administrators and the wider community to build awareness about sun safety and promote a healthy school environment. 
  • Encourage lasting change by supporting school communities in planting shade trees and undertaking shade audits. 
  • Support schools to organize annual stewardship events and invite the whole school community to participate in caring for the trees.
  • Implement multi-faceted, meaningful programming that is linked with curriculum lessons to increase student awareness toward the positive impacts of shade.  

Complete a sample shade assessment. 

Undertake shade audits to measure the shade in the morning, at noon and after school to best determine how much shade is on a school ground and where more shade is needed. Ongoing monitoring of shade can help measure progress toward shade targets. 

Design for shade. 

Engage the school community to best understand where to implement shade that meets their needs and levels of activity 

Decide what type of shade treatment – natural, built, or a combo of both – is appropriate for each area of activity (e.g., planting trees and shrubs and/or building structures or installing shade sails where shade will be most effective). 

Set goals and objectives for phasing the implementation of shade solutions 

Budget for shade. 

Ensure school grounds and shade efforts are included in maintenance budgets. 

Consider establishing a tree inventory to aid in monitoring the health of trees building preventative maintenance measures into a comprehensive forest management plan. 


Both natural and built shade play a vital role in enhancing the quality of school grounds. Incorporating built shade can be necessary where it isn’t feasible to plant trees. However, the environmental benefits to natural shade far outweigh those of built shade. Increasing natural shade provides cooling, sun protection, outdoor learning opportunities, improved air quality, wildlife habitat and aesthetic and psychological benefits.  By incorporating trees into school ground planning, design and management practices, educators and school administrators can create healthier, more sustainable and inviting environments for learning, recreation and community engagement. 


Climate change describes the “change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”

Thermally-comfortable school grounds consider the thermal environment to “optimize children’s physical, social and emotional play experiences.”

Urban Heat Islands are urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Structures such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. Urban areas, where these structures are highly concentrated and greenery is limited, become “islands” of higher temperatures relative to outlying areas. 

A shade audit is a tool to help identify how outdoor spaces use existing shade and areas where additional shade may be useful. The Shade Audit Information Guide and Tool provides more information on conducting shade assessments. 

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