Cultivating coreopsis, kids and character


Children and plants flourish in school gardens

Teacher Debi Pope and her fourth-grade students enjoy the Illinois native prairie garden at Palos West elementary School.

It’s easy for Palos West Elementary School fourth-graders to imagine an Illinois prairie. All they do is look out the windows of their Palos Park school to see native grasses flourishing in a courtyard garden the students tend.

Their teacher, Debi Pope, and her colleagues use the gardens as part of the curriculum to illustrate lessons ranging from social science discussions on sod houses to science units on the life cycles of plants. In art class, fourth-graders paint rocks with an Illinois state symbol—perhaps the cardinal, violet or state flag—and place them along the edge of the garden path. Second-graders read Native American poetry seated among the coneflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susans. Children study seed growth for science class, sketch plants for art and hone their writing skills as they record in their journals.

Melanie Wotjulewicz, former director of science for the Chicago Public Schools, marvels at the diversity of garden themes developed by the schools. Shakespeare gardens feature flowers from the Bard’s sonnets and plays, Impressionist gardens echo Monet’s paintings and salsa gardens yield all the ingredients for the spicy condiment.

In a recent watershed project at Waters School, 4540 N. Campbell Ave., Chicago, students measured the city block to study water runoff from asphalt on the school property.

“We determined the permeable and impermeable areas and calculated the load on the sewer system created by one inch of rain,” explains Pete Leki, volunteer garden coordinator at Waters School.

Students then calculated how much the runoff could be reduced if 100 square feet of asphalt were removed. Parents are now hacking at asphalt and removing the hunks to clear space to enlarge the school’s green space.

But school gardens teach much more than academics.

“Working in a garden teaches students to respect others and their environment. It cultivates responsibility when children are expected to maintain the garden. It demands a team effort and cooperation. And by stepping around tiny seedlings, students learn to work slowly and carefully,” Pope says.

Often children flourish along with the plants they tend.

At Pleasant Ridge School in Glenview, Dave Jones, school garden coordinator and physical education teacher, encouraged sixth grade athlete Walker Stadler to stretch beyond sports by working in the garden.

“Walker learned he can do other things, feel good about himself and succeed,” Walker’s mom, Challen, says.

Students who live in apartments can feel disconnected from the environment, says Leki. “But the students seem drawn so strongly to doing this type of work. Every smallest little corner of the garden has some surprise, some wonderful fantastic thing to observe.”

If you or your school are intereted in setting up a garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden will offer a one-day School Gardening Symposium July 31 for parents and teachers. There is also a weeklong summer program for teachers. For information, contact Cindy Klemmer at or (847) 835-6832. For more help, try the American Horticultural Society, (800) 777-7931, and click on “Youth Gardening”; Illinois State Board of Education,; and National Gardening Association, (800) 538-7476,


-- Cindy Mehallow

Kids Eat Chicago

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