Taking learning outdoors

School gardens become a living, learning laboratory


Mary Boldan


Short stuff: Spotlight Every school needs a nature trail and every person—adult or young—needs a bit of wilderness if wonder, reverence and awe are to be cultivated. William O. Douglas, former Supreme Court Justice

Today, instead of wandering down a nature trail, many children spend their free time surfing the Internet or playing video games.

To counteract this nature deficit in children, Chicago area schools are turning gravel schoolyards into natural environments for children. The projects are funded by the Appleton, Wis.-based Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Program.

Established by Wild Ones in 1996, in honor of its founder, Lorrie Otto, the Seeds for Education program offers grants to schools and nonprofit educational organizations to establish outdoor learning centers filled with native plants.

In 1998, parents Pam Jackson and Vicki Klein of North Barrington Elementary School envisioned an outdoor learning laboratory on their school grounds.

Their dream has blossomed into an interactive habitat surrounding the school. A living science courtyard features native trees and shrubs, a wetlands area with a pond, a 2½ acre developing prairie comprised of more that 1,800 prairie grasses and plants, and a bird and butterfly garden with nectar-producing plants and berry bushes for the birds.

Schools are one of the best areas to promote natural landscaping, which is why the Seeds for Education program supports outdoor learning centers, says Steven Massen, SED director.

"The most basic definition of education is that taught by members of a culture to the next generation to allow that culture to continue," Massen says. "To be sustained, our culture is dependent on the Earth. If we cannot teach our children to live sustainably on this Earth, eventually our culture will disappear and our educational system will have failed us."

School nature areas often teach many subjects simultaneously. Science, math, art, history and environmental education can all be woven into the experience. For example, for a math class, the children can calculate the germination rate of seeds.

At Burley School on the Northwest side, the art students designed and built mosaic stepping stones for the garden pathway.

"We converted a strip of land on the front side of the school from mowed turf and highly pruned shrubs into a living garden. Today, the front prairie garden is a vibrant patch of nature that encourages children to walk on the path, discovering the plants," says Danielle Green, a parent volunteer at Burley. "We are also launching a greening project for the back of the school, which is currently an acre of asphalt."

Bringing classrooms outdoors

The Montessori School of Lake Forest used its $400 grant to revitalize a prairie and wetland on the school grounds. It’s part of a project called "Outdoor Learning and Discovery" that also includes a community garden and classroom gardens, where each classroom has a patio that extends the classroom into the outdoors.

These natural habitats are now incorporated into the curriculum to foster an awareness, appreciation and stewardship of nature.

"Maria Montessori [creator of the Montessori method of education] placed great emphasis on understanding botany, growing things and working on projects," says Martha Tyson, landscape architect on the project. "Our goal for the school was to give them a natural Illinois landscape as the setting and the opportunity to explore the woodland, prairie and pond ecosystems."

Although the school has a full-time maintenance director who maintains the landscape, "the director works with the children in the primary care of their classroom yard and garden in deciding what should be planted," says Katherine Ritter, school board member.

Finding time

Schools pressured for time in the day between state learning mandates and test-prep and other outside pressures can find it difficult to fit in nature studies, says Kathleen J. Cummings, special education teacher for the Chicago Public Schools.

"When the principal interviewed me for the position, she asked me quite a bit about my school gardening experience. After I was hired and actually started to put plants around the entrance of the school, she told me to stop, that she didn’t want a garden. She said our focus at school was going to be reading, reading, reading."

But Lynne Cherry, children’s author, and founder of the Center for Children’s Environmental Literature, believes a school garden can help increase a child’s achievement when it is part of the curriculum. Her book, How Groundhog’s Garden Grew, helps inspire schools to transform their schoolyard into a hands-on nature center, as well as a peaceful place to read a book and make connections to the other living things with which we share our world.

For more information on how to establish a school natural area, visit Wild Ones Web site at www.for-wild.org.

Mary Boldan is a writer living in Arlington Heights who specializes in organic gardening.

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