Baby Steps

This is my story of the Family Center’s first baby steps in bringing big ideas about greening our schools down to simple starting points.   My name is Jessie Hoagland and I was a dedicated outdoor nature teacher at the Clayton Schools’ Family Center from 2003 – 2008.  You can read more about me and the school in the ‘About’ section.

2008-03 Jessie and ShabirWhat follows is a distillation of learning offered in hopes of speeding you along on your own green journey.  The children in these photos are now entering Middle School and High School, and some of them are already leading the charge in re-greening our world. These writings are dedicated to them.

Baby Steps…

2008-08 Habitat GardenThe Family Center is a vibrant public preschool and family resource center that supports learning during the first formative years in family life.

Family Centers are simple formulas but remarkable places, and I would wish such a facility to be within easy reach of every new parent on the planet.

Money spent on early childhood education provides very high returns (widely estimated to be as high as 1200%), early parental involvement is known to improve later academic success, and parents in particular are very interested in nurturing the next stewards of the earth.

The “Magic Years” of preschool are when children most deeply absorb a love of nature, therefore, it is critical for the sustainable education movement to preserve nature play for the very young. Since it’s costly to bus children out of the city to nature places, it makes much more sense to enrich the preschool playground, and bring nature home to the preschool.

Much of what I write here is what I have learned through trial and error, and what nature, the children, and skilled educators have taught me.  This is my own story based on sustained personal experience; indeed, it’s imperative that we each learn to tell our own stories well. Learning to tell your story well is the number one thing that will help move green movement forward. People will follow a good story.

Creative Destruction

Creative Destruction

Part of what makes sustainable education a challenge is the many ways of looking at this gigantic new field of study. Parents are like strong sled dogs, who pull the culture of the school forward; teachers build the fire of learning; and the maintenance crew somehow greens the infrastructure on the fly, much like changing tires on a school bus while it’s rolling down the road.

We all use different metaphors, we all have different points of view, all of us are “right,” and collective wisdom must be captured and cultivated in order to find a way forward.  Greening a school is not easily done, yet “doing nothing is not an option”.  These posts are one view through one peephole, and represent my best attempt to do “not nothing”.

Do babies matter?

Raising small children is strenuous work, much like the backbreaking effort required to prepare the soil for a new garden: it is the hard unseen labor on which so much of the garden’s future success depends. Parents create the fertile soil for education by cultivating habits of mind, rooting out unwanted behaviors and watering the seeds of joy.

It is similar for schools: much unseen labor goes into preparing the cultural soil of a school long before sustainable green shoots begin to emerge.  Mission statements must be grappled with, policies must be established and councils must be created. As any experienced gardener knows, fertile soil is paramount to future productivity; in a school much effort is spent on improving the physical soil outdoors as well as the cultural soil indoors.  School playgrounds, in many ways, are reflections of what we value, and what we hold dear. They are reflections of the culture we have created within, and what we collectively value, including (hopefully) nature, play, imagination, and creativity.

The way we treat our mothers and the way we treat our earth is inextricably entwined; as we reclaim one relationship, the other is put into honored and balanced relationship as well.  Please support struggling non-profits such as Mother to Mother, Nurses for Newborns,  PAT and early childhood education in general. As the birthplace of both kindergarten and Parents-as-Teachers in America, Saint Louis has a sustained cultural heritage that includes strong support of early childhood education.  Here in the Heartland, we hold our families dear.

Preschool parenting programs are hothouses for regenerative education; they are a keystone piece in unlocking the blessings of citizenship, academic success and robust local commerce. It is well known that young families drive much of the economy with their spending habits, that academic success follows from early family engagement, and that children are civilized by sitting around the dinner table at home on most nights.

Families who value citizenship over consumerism, earth stewardship over extractive practices, and economies that act as our servants rather than our masters will naturally find their way to Family Centers that support these cultural frameworks, thus creating positive virtuous cycles that will last for generations to come.

The plan is to keep evolving…

Together We Can Do It

Together We Can Do It

What makes the Clayton Schools’ Family Center nature program unique is that we endeavored to grow the gardens at the Family Center, rather than install them.  While there is a richness of big ideas driving the work, the general plan is to enrich the outdoor environment as much as possible, by opportunistically seizing upon available interest, expertise, and resources, in a creative free-play that places as much emphasis on learning, as on the final product.

The gardens grow in dialogue with the curriculum, and in proportion to our community’s willingness to care for them.  They are a reflection of current collective understanding, and hopefully a springboard for continued learning.  They are not gardens done for, they are gardens done with families and within community.

Why less is more:

The One Hour Green Librarian program is not just small, it’s “micro-small.”  By dedicating a “Green Librarian” just one hour per day per school site, this text hopefully provides ample evidence that it is possible to meaningfully increase the eco-literacy level of a school community with minimal expense or effort. One day we might hope to have full-time nature educators on staff at all schools, but for now, a one-hour per day teacher seems to be a workable starting point, fitting for our financial times, and appropriate for busy teachers, administrators and maintenance staff who are already overwhelmed by far too many things to do in one day.  A little bit of nature education is better than none at all, and once awareness expands, it rarely falls back.

Two more important points when considering the “One Hour Green Librarian” method:

1)  Because it’s clearly impossible to do everything in one short hour per day, the responsibility for sustainability remains with every single person in the building, and is not conveniently thrust onto just one person.

2)  The time requirement is not exactly one hour per day, for during the short planting window in the crazy month of May,  the “Green Librarian” will work 40 hours per week, or more, as well as all  summer long, taking a relative break in winter.  While it is tempting to carve a dedicated hour out of a Science Teacher’s time budget, for example, the Green Librarian schedule is the exactly the opposite of the traditional school calendar, and requires the ability to flex work by season.  Thus the need for a dedicated nature teacher with a flexible schedule.

It’s scalable:

One of the best things about the One Hour Per Day “micro-method,” is that because it is so small, it can easily be replicated by any school, anywhere, on a shoestring budget.  Imagine schools all over the world hiring a Green Librarian to systematically integrate and leverage the resources of the local community for the purpose of enriching school playgrounds:  in a few short years, the planet would enjoy a new magnitude of cooling shade trees, the habitat for butterflies and birds would multiply exponentially, and future generations would be well on their way to finding elegant solutions to the many vexing challenges we face now and in our future.

Seeds are like ideas

Seeds are like ideas

At the Family Center, we hold the seeds of this possibility, and like blowing on a fluffy dandylion, these posts give wing to those ideas.

Now Let Us Begin:

The reader must forgive this rather windy but necessary introduction.  Now let us dive deeply into the details in the first baby steps of greening our schools.


Habitats for Children

Before the garden, there was a garden:

Without question, the “Habitat Garden,” is the very best garden for learning, and one of the first gardens that should be attempted by any school starting out on their nature journey. Homeowners with small children might take note: it is also the easiest garden to care for.

A rose is a rose…

Words matter, and evidence of learning can be traced through a history of vocabulary.  Over the course of many years, the original “Vegetable Garden” morphed into a “Butterfly Garden,” which evolved into a “Native Garden,” and then became a “Children’s Habitat Garden”, reflecting our growing understanding that while nature is good, it’s really the relationship between children and nature that is our focus.

Obviously, what happens inside the walls, or outside in the garden, matters more than the actual buildings or gardens per se, but surprisingly, I have seen more than one school garden lose focus on the learning, and actually restrict the children in an attempt to protect the gardens.

Come into the garden...

Come into the garden…

During the time of my tenure, shortly after Richard Louv’s book came out, it became evident that what we were doing was creating a habitat for that most endangered species of all:   the human child in the garden, “The Last Child In The Woods.”

Less is More:

At roughly 6’ x 27’, the “Habitat Garden” is about as big as one busy person can joyfully maintain; yet, surprisingly, it turns out to be big enough to comfortably accommodate a busy preschool of five classrooms, plus “Open Play” programs and “free for all” weekends. The steady tramp of tiny feet will quickly reduce any school playground to mud and sticks, as most school playgrounds will readily attest.  Only the hardiest and most resilient plants are able to survive the tender mercies of curious young children, not to mention long, hot, neglectful summers.  At a glance, with minimal expense and effort, a rather rich habitat can take root in three short years, simply by planting about three well chosen plants every spring and fall.







2008-08 habitat with cup plant


A simple mulch path down the middle of the garden turns out to be the best design for use by very small children, and as time goes by, steppingstones, sculptures, “treasure rocks,” and other items of interest are added or taken away as time and inspiration allow. Formal projects are inspired by the habitat garden, classroom projects push the habitat garden in certain directions, or projects simply happen in the habitat garden setting.  Much learning happens during informal playtime on the playground, as when bugs and creatures spontaneously show up, and eat each other, which is difficult to orchestrate on cue in the middle of a lesson. Having a green librarian on hand during outdoor play is a welcome addition by supervising playground teachers.

While the actual native plants in a habitat garden will differ between different schools, the ability to attract wildlife and/or create a similar sense of excitement and wonder is what makes the “Habitat Garden” go. Part of what makes the garden so fascinating is that it’s always changing and evolving; the Habitat Garden is never “done”.

At this point, the “Children’s Habitat Garden” requires the least care, and in my estimation, based of eight years of trial and error, provides the most educational benefit, by a whopping landslide.

To go forward, look back:



As educators, it is important to find ways to capture the knowledge and wisdom of those who have long worked to make themselves “native to this place.”

Schools and libraries are natural repositories for cultural wisdom, most of which is currently kept via informal oral record, which in fact turns out to be surprisingly durable.  As a society, we would be wise to hold storytelling and folk music festivals to keep alive the “story of place.”   A hard-copy record of these reflections was left with the school to help document the early garden, it’s early roots, and the evolution towards a more integrated and systemic approach to nature education.

1994 Sunflower with beeAt one point, deep into the work, photos from the first vegetable garden were rummaged from the back of a school closet, lending important clues and context for finding our way forward. (Specifically, the importance of immigrant families, who typically hold close ties to the land).

Would it be too “old school” to suggest that good old fashioned poster panels might offer the best long term strategy for documenting the creatures, people, and lessons contained within our sacred school spaces?  Internet postings can all too easily disappear in the poof of a keystroke, taking important historical knowledge with it. Poster panels are a simple way of revealing the children’s learning to the larger community, reflecting and sharing best teaching practices, and providing historical documentation.  This is part of the Reggio method practiced at the Clayton Schools’ Family Center.

The Habitat Garden Wins!

Beyond sustainable

The “Children’s Habitat Garden” has proved itself to be sustainable, and arguably regenerative, for it has long flourished with a minimum of care.  Basically, we neglect the garden all summer, it grows all by itself, and then, employing the tactic of “take away”, we clear a path down the middle of the garden shortly before school starts (when it’s blisteringly hot).  The next challenge is for us to think beyond sustainable, and begin to think in terms of generating a fertile and fruitful, or regenerative relationship with the natural world.  Family Centers, with all those babies, are nice places to consider the profound possibility of fertility in partnership with the earth.

The first step in regeneration education is to find unique ways to  “make ourselves native to this place.”  This means to get to know local foods and their seasons, to identify native and non-native plants, to watch out for the birds, insects and animals who come together as part of our community, and to work together to generate a strong sense of who we are, and exactly how we belong to this place.

Knowing the plants, creatures and people who come together at this particular point in time gives one a strong and resilient “Sense of Place.”  Knowing who you are and where you come from puts you at a great advantage when going forth to make your way in a great big uncertain world.  For example, we are people of the corn and tomatoes, oak trees and acorns, lightening bugs and cicadas.  Visitors from the coasts or deserts find our lightning bugs magical, and our cicadas slightly unnerving.

Who lives here?

Who lives here?

Looking for the Trim Tab

Creating a new garden is the fun part of any nature teacher’s job, but the fun quickly dissolves into drudgery when maintenance chores, like weeding and watering, turn the teacher into a pint-sized maintenance man. With only “one hour” to devote to both teaching and maintenance jobs per day, it quickly becomes clear that nothing will ever be done well, therefore nothing is worth doing without first considering how to get the “biggest bang for the buck”.  This is called the trim tab effect (by Buckmeister Fuller).

The trim tab is that tiny little tab wing at the end of a rudder on a boat, or perhaps on the tip of an airplane wing, that turns up at the end.  By turning that little trim tab ever so slightly, you can turn a great ship, or airplane, practically with one finger.

The One Hour Green Librarian’s main job is to look for the “trim tab” in all things, and at this point, I consider the Children’s Habitat Garden to be one of the most important trim tabs in the whole field of sustainable education.

Garden Dreams

Dreams or Drudgery?

Two Hours Per Day:

Gay Campus 2008

Gay Campus 2008

As the Nature Teacher with the Family Center, I actually had two preschool campuses to cover, so I was technically paid to work two hours per day, or ten hours per week.  (Plus there was plenty of overtime, not to mention a fair amount of personal expense, as would be the same for any good and blessed teacher who walks this earth.)

The Gay campus has good soil, southern exposure, five viable water sources, and incredibly, a nature trail. The Orange Rooms, with two full day classrooms embedded in the local High School campus, were newly constructed, and the playgrounds required a lot of work.

So much to do, so little time:                                                                              



Like many schools, the Orange Room playground consisted of compacted soil, high brick walls that gave the playground an oven-like feeling, some thin grass, and not much else.

Orange Rooms 2004

Orange Room 2004

The traditional way of building school gardens is to create raised beds with railroad ties and imported soil, but after touring too many schools with forlorn and forgotten vegetable gardens, plus realizing that raised beds look exactly like sandboxes to preschool children, we opted for more natural looking gardens instead.  Opportunistically planting strips of gardens along walkways and walls not only allows children to reach the garden, it makes for easy weeding, while keeping a wild garden as neat and tidy as possible.



Within the course of three short years, we had several decent gardens to learn from, including a butterfly garden, worm garden and “three sisters” garden which are written about more extensively in later posts.



By the way, the hardest part of using photography as an assessment tool is to remember to take pictures at the start of new projects, when there is seemingly nothing, (or worse), to take pictures of.

2007-06 Butterfly Bush in bloom


It’s also hard to catch the invisible magic of learning, or catch fast-moving kids in action, not to mention guessing what will become important to telling the whole story in hindsight.  Plus it’s also a trick to remain fully present in the garden with the children, while snapping off photos at the same time.  Thus, photo collections always have big gaps, so take a page from my book of mistakes, and think about making a “shot list” before every new project going forward.



Post-note in 2013: Sadly, bulldozers came through the Orange Room Gardens ten years after they first appeared, completely obliterating the gardens.  No worries, for the gardens may one day be lost, but the learning goes on forever.


Mapping and Measuring Diversity

Richness and stability

One of nature’s primary “operating instructions” is the principle of diversity, as diverse environments provide both richness and stability. I champion Lucinda’s vision of “school playground as nature education center” and look forward to the day when schools have rich and inviting outdoor environments for all kinds of respected and revered creatures. By using nature as teacher, we can look to nature’s strategy of diversity, and apply that principle to school culture as well as playground. A richer outdoor environment will inevitably lead to a richer indoor culture and a richer array of curricular opportunities in the outdoor classroom as well.


When I formally started teaching at the Family Center in 2003, our outdoor plantings consisted mostly of non-flowering ornamentals, trees, grasses and shrubs, plus of course, our small butterfly garden. We have diversified our plants and creatures significantly over the past five years, and as our nature program and our gardens have progressed, we have been steadily rewarded with visits by hummingbirds, goldfinches, preying mantises, and flocks of migrating monarch butterflies.  Dragonflies now patrol the playground at the Orange Room, and mockingbirds regularly set up nests in the red-twig bushes.  In the spring of 2008, a mother robin created a nest in the sculpture on the High School campus honoring Carly’s grandmother, giving the children prime viewing seats from which to study the long arc of baby bird hatching, tending and fledging.

Bio-diversity as metric

It is thrilling, for those of us paying attention, to witness the very first visit to our campus by a new species, and sometimes we merrily break out in spontaneous celebration of song and dance, often instigated by the children.  Teaching children to relish the simple joys found in a garden gives them a lifetime ticket to happiness. At home, a parent/child connection grounded in nature can travel the long arc of a relationship, wearing comfortingly well into old age.  On a metric level, each new bird or butterfly visit is one more small measure that our program is working and progressing.  On a communal level, it is an indigenous but contemporary idea to treat all life forms as our “brothers and sisters,” and consider the welfare of the butterflies and birds in an expanded sense of community.

If a butterfly flaps its wings in the rainforest…

On a grander scale, imagine schools all over the country providing habitat, food and water to migrating birds and butterflies, along with the chance to bring children together with nature and community, while teaching reverence, science, literacy and social concern all along the way, and what you get is a pretty good reason to jump up in the morning.  Add to this the professors with telephoto lenses in pursuit of butterflies, the charming grandmothers who pinch snapdragons and cheerily point out the lion faces in pansies, and prairie experts with extra unclaimed plants in tow, all diversifying and enriching the school community with their very presence. Each dab of paint brought to the playground by our community members merges together to create a beautiful mosaic.   Who says we can’t change the world with our own two hands?

Journal diversity

At the Family Center, we are taking baby steps towards mapping and measuring the diversity of wildlife and plant life, through photo documentation and journaling by the children in a variety of journals scattered throughout the building and classrooms.  It’s not exactly clear how to systematize this information, but it’s worth taking time to capture the information in the raw, as it may be important for grant making purposes or amateur study in the future.   Note that our very young children are doing most of the documentation journaling, drawing and sometimes even the photography. In the end, I believe that increasing and valuing diversity will be one of the measures of our success, a principle that applies indoors as well as outdoors.

Ugly Pumpkins

Lucinda ran what I thought to be a brilliant project on the “Ugly Pumpkins” in 2005(?), which is documented in a poster panel.  She brought in a ghost (white) pumpkin, a bumpy pumpkin and green pumpkin to challenge the children’s stereotypical notion of what a pumpkin can be.  Inspired by Lucinda’s project, we planted three kinds of tomatoes at the Orange Rooms the following year, along with several kinds of basil.  Broadening our concept of foods beyond the commercial norm is a valuable exercise that celebrates flavor, uniqueness and resiliency.

Again, thinking big picture, public schools could very easily and very quickly become “seed-savers” of heirloom plants, and the future of our food supply would be that much more protected through the principle of diversity.   With the seed project and some of the food projects at the Orange Rooms, we have taken baby steps in this direction.

Gifts from the Earth

With love from me to you

With love from me to you

Gifts from the Earth:

The earth gives us so many gifts, including clean air, free food, fresh water, and beautiful  sunshine. It behooves us then, to return our gratitude to the earth, as many cultures do, and have done, across the span of time, by offering gifts to our gardens, including water, mulch, money, seeds or amendments. Many of the gifts come from teachers, and a few enlightened parents, who model the way forward for parents and children.

Little Red Hen

Without a culture of gift, gratitude and exchange, we risk running into what Catherine calls the “Little Red Hen” syndrome, in which one person (the hen) takes the initiative to plant the seeds, water the seeds, care for the seeds, and harvest the seeds, while the cat, the dog and the duck then swoop in at festival time, to enjoy the bounty of the hen’s hard work.  Classic children’s literature contains a kernel of truth for a reason, and schools all too often rely on the hard work of a single red hen to keep the garden going. (It’s not on purpose, it’s just that everyone is oh so busy.) The red hen needs everyone to help shoulder the burden of caring for our gardens, and thus our earth.

Who will help me plant the seeds?

Who will help me plant the seeds?

A Common Tragedy

A corollary to the “Little Red Hen” syndrome is the scenario in which everybody takes from the garden, but no one has the willingness to care for the garden. In the green world, this is known as “the tragedy of the commons.” The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic term to describe the depletion that happens when common property is shared by everyone; everyone takes what they want, according to their own selfish interests, and the commons are tragically depleted, to the eventual poverty of all.

This is what all too often happens to school playgrounds, and why they typically look the way they do:  school playgrounds belong to everybody, and therefore, they belong to nobody.  Without building a strong culture of people invested in protecting “the commons,” common spaces such as rivers, parks, playgrounds and seas will gradually fill up with pollution and trash, and will slowly be stripped clean by parties operating primarily out of their own selfish interests.   In 2008, through work with Jamie Cloud and the Cloud Institute, the Family Center played the classic “fish game” with teachers, parents, maintenance workers and administrators, only to discover that we are just as human as anyone else.

Go Fish

Go Fish

A Modern Potluck

A gift culture helps protect us from the Little Red Hen scenario, and from the Tragedy of the Commons, as it is customary and polite to return a gift with a proportionate gift.  After instituting garden property rights, one classroom might grow tomatoes, another classroom might grow cilantro, another classroom might grow green onions, and upon mutual sharing of the produce, everyone makes salsa! Sharing garden spaces and tools rarely seems to work, but sharing gifts and lessons from the gardens does seem to work.

Just as school kitchens have clear property rights (don’t eat my lunch!), and kitchen rules (wash your own cup!), school gardens require clear property boundaries and clean rules of conduct.  And, according the the operating instructions of potluck magic, a school garden will bloom beautifully when each person in the school serves up his or her unique dish for the garden table feast.   The trick is to encourage each teacher to develop their own nature practice, and find ways to weave it successfully into the whole of the school.

Our very own salsa

Our very own recipe?

Developing “Eco-literacy”

In the Eco-Literacy Art project with the Little Orange Room in December 2007, we made gift letters from nature items for our family holiday project, and gifted our school with signage for the Orange Rooms.  Working with nature teaches us to work purposefully with the idea of impermanence. Nothing is permanent, except change, and maybe recycling.

2006-3-23 nature alphabet2007-11 holding nature letter A

Forever never lasts

Instead of buying a plastic sign designed to last “forever,” (but in reality only lasts about ten years), we purposefully built a sign that was designed to fall apart and be recycled.  This is an indigenous idea whereby a meeting-house, for example, is purposefully designed to last only about twenty years, so that each new generation gets to participate in the construction of the next longhouse, ensuring that collective wisdom does not become lost. When the “O” falls from the Orange Room sign, next year’s children will get to make another “O”, constructed from natural items found on our very own playground, in a eco-literacy lesson that keeps giving year after year.  When the sign becomes too old to be acceptable, the whole sign is composted, and the next crop of children gets to practice making their letters using items found in the garden.

2008 Orange Room s

Here’s the same sign, three years later:

Time for a new me!

Time for a new me!

Play with your words

Later, just for fun, we made a surprise “Peace” sign for teacher Kath. After that, Kath and the children surprised me with a sign spelling out my name, “Jessie”. A year later, a Family Center child made signs for his teacher at the elementary school, as part of a fundraiser. all showing how a good project can sprout legs and take on a life of it’s own.

2008-02-28 Peace Sign

Making letters from nature items is an exercise in developing a “sense of place,” rotating letters in space, finger dexterity, collaboration, gift-giving, artistic development and of course, spelling and associating word sounds.  It’s important to reveal the learning, and sometimes offer guidance or instruction in an outdoor environment.  As a side note, finding or creating beautiful signage for the garden presents a surprisingly high degree of challenge, especially if the project is to be child driven. A simple chalkboard or piece of slate and chalk is one solution that works, as do wooden beads if you can find them. Laminate signs don’t seem to stand the test of time.  Here are some of the ideas we’ve tried:

2007-05-00 Blue Room Broccoli2007-05-00 laminate welcome

2006-09-29 Signage Welcome Children

Hunter or Gatherer?

Besides finding treasures in nature, children love to hunt for things, especially boys, and their fathers, who particularly enjoy “surprise-and-pounce” games on the Nature Trail.  I notice that mothers and classroom teachers, who are predominantly women, have an instinctive predisposition towards teaching children about plants and planting.  Children clearly have a wild love for anything that moves:  creatures, critters and animals.  When designing nature programs for children, be sure to balance both hunting and gathering, as both are required to deliver a well balanced program, suiting the needs of as many children as possible.

The Gift of Reverence

As parents, we can help create a society that honors our teachers with the gift of reverence for the important work they do.  Daisies come into bloom just when school lets out for summer, and May Daisies grow easily on school property. We know from recent studies on happiness that flowers are one of the few things that make people truly happy*, and it is a small but meaningful gesture to make crowns of recognition for our hardworking teachers at the end of the school year.

Crowns for conquerors and for princesses

Cutting flowers is best left for the last few days of school, and even benefits the plants by sending energy into their roots, instead of spending it on flowers. I have discovered that  clover tops make splendid fairy princess crowns, and the leaves of lamb’s ears look just like laurel wreaths, worn by roman conquerors, when riding into town victorious on their chariots.  There’s not much teaching for a Nature Educator to do during the last few days of school, but making crowns is as worthy as any other activity that fits easily and effortlessly into the end of year celebrations.

2013 Boys as gladiators2008-05-29 Last Day Ella 2008-05-29 Last Day Olivia

* Having dinner with friends is one of the few other things proven to make people happy.  Money and the weather don’t seem to register on the happiness scale.

Seeds of Change

Regeneration Education

Children love a challenge, and from years in the garden with them, I know they particularly enjoy harvesting seeds from marigolds and zinnias. I show one child how to open a “surprise seed package,” how to extract the tiny seeds, and then the learning spiral begins.  That child shows another, the children start to teach each other, and suddenly, all children spontaneously know how to harvest seeds from marigold plants.  The children will continue to teach each other, as well as brothers and sisters, and a new cultural behavior has taken root.   All the teacher has to do is give that wheel a spin now and then, and the learning as well as the re-greening of our playgrounds begins to fly up an exponential curve.

Planned Randomness

Children like to plant seeds, all the time, everywhere, all over the place, and since being outdoors equates to freedom, we’ve made a policy decision to let them plant seeds anywhere they like.  When springtime rolls around, flowers pop up everywhere on our playground in an uncontrolled riot of randomness. As they say, everyone can count the seeds in an apple, but no one can count the apples in a seed. Seeds represent ideas, potentiality, hope, fertility, and, seeds represent food for the body as well as the soul.

The Challenge

The seed project was simple to dream up and simple to execute.  We asked the children to collect as many different kinds of seeds as they could find; and thus the seed game began.  Already acquainted with a few seed samples, the kids quickly began collecting others.  Seeds come in an amazing variety of shapes, sizes and disguises and you have to think creatively once you’ve outstripped the known supply of ready seeds.  Hunting for new seeds prompted the children to look closely at everything around them, and think in a flexible and fluid sort of way.  The seed project astounded me, as children and nature projects often do, when the children started finding many kinds of seeds that I had overlooked on the playground, leading to a spirited and virtuous spiral of learning for the whole playground community.

Upward Spiral

With sustained interest in seeds, we led a walking field trip to one of the “rain gardens” near our Community Center to cut down cattails, and break them open.  The children began bringing in seeds they found around home and collecting them in baby food jars in the classrooms.  Later, fruits and vegetables were brought in and cut open for exploration in the classroom.

Farmer’s Market vs. Farmer John

The seed project eventually spiraled into visits to local Farmer’s Markets, followed by the creation of a child-sized market in their very own classroom, filled with every sort of math, literacy and social-emotional learning opportunity you can imagine. In my view, the seed-to-farmer’s market project is a perfect example of a outdoor nature project that spiraled into a meaningful indoor family classroom project that is completely appropriate and fitting for our times.

The Red Barn Myth

The myth of the family farm is persistent, and pervasive in pre-school books, but I wonder what kind of favor we are doing our children by insisting that our food comes from cute little cut-out family farms with red barns.  The red barn myth is very deeply entrenched in our American identity, yet it hardly matches our current food reality.  It will surely be just one more struggle for the next generation, to somehow reconcile collective identity with the current reality, as they modify the American identity, or modify the food supply, or both.

Seeds of Change

The seed project is a beautiful example of how a very real outdoor project can be brought indoors and spiraled into a meaningful and mature project, right for our times, and ripe with opportunities for learning. I am quite sure that if the seed challenge were introduced to another classroom, with other teachers, the class would end up in an entirely different place, based on the children’s interest, with an entirely different and equally meaningful project.  Nature, as a subject, is so vast, so deep and so wide, that learning opportunities are as individual as they are infinite.

Food: The Holy Grail

Filling the Cup: 

For adults, espe2008-08 chardcially those charged with feeding the whole family, food is by far the most compelling component of a nature education program, and the first thing, besides recycling, that jumps to mind when starting out on the green school journey.  The golden vision of children eating vegetables straight from the garden is readily fed by our fertile imaginations, not to mention pretty pictures posted on the internet.  The realities of growing food on public school property, in the Mid-West, in a modern culture pressed for time, and on a calendar opposite the school calendar, is a slightly different picture.  Rather than a starting point, the garden-to-table link is a culmination point that requires a sustained effort at building capacity and knowledge.

Working Sustainably

2008-08cucumbersGrowing food requires a great deal of time and effort, not to mention insect control, fences, water, and an abundance of knowledge combined with a great deal of experience, as it takes about five years to become a good teacher, and twenty years to become a good farmer. It is not yet clear to me how to grow a meaningful amount of food in a school setting without grant money, full-time volunteers, a cadre of graduate students, celebrities, or preferably, all of the above.  Again, with a Nature Educator on staff for one hour per day, we are searching for that elusive sustainable model that any school could easily adapt or adopt.

Our indigenous foods

2004 10 Oct 1 pumpkin shotIn terms of food, at the Family Center we have had our best luck growing what I would call the “indigenous foods” of our area.  Pumpkins, squash and corn grow especially well in our gardens and they are foods that link us to the land and to our past. The study of corn, especially, is important to understanding modern meat production, nutrition, the political landscape including energy policy, and food inequities around the world. Corn is the reason great civilizations settled and flourished along the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, reminding us that we are not the first peoples to populate this area.

From a broad historical perspective, consider that our current food supply has fed only one or two generations, and how well it will continue to nourish future generations remains open to question. If you read “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” by Michael Pollan, (which helped launch the current food movement), it is apparent that “we are walking corn people,” and that corn is still “King” today.

King Korn

King Korn

The Squash Family

Pumpkins grow well here, and every year the school is rewarded with a predictably lush pumpkin garden that requires very little attention or care.  Pumpkin vines have prickly stems, and bunnies won’t eat them.  Once, I discovered a very hungry baby bunny trapped inside a fence with several untouched baby pumpkin sprouts. Baby bunnies have no memory, and no sense of taste, so they will eat anything! But they won’t eat baby pumpkin or squash plants.

The Smashing Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins

Pumpkins, and especially anything orange in the squash family, are nutritional powerhouses.  The squash family kept many a hungry settler and native American alive through the hungry month of February, the lean month of March, and that cruelest month of April. In this age of abundance, pumpkins are mostly relegated to decoration, but kids have a wild love for pumpkins, and Jack-o-lanterns are uniquely American creations worth celebrating.

The Three Sisters

Corn, beans and squash are known by first peoples as the “three sisters,” who, together with berries, nuts, game and fish, historically make up the indigenous foods of our area.  In traditional three-sister gardening practice, the corn is planted first, the beans are planted next, to climb up the growing corn stalks, with squash planted last, to cover the ground like a living mulch, providing prickly protection against hungry prowlers. As a post note, there are many “Three Sister” books and demonstration gardens to serve as reference guides these days; not so much just a few short years ago.

We have been able to get corn and pumpkins to grow reliably well at the Family Center, but those silly bunnies get our beans, peas and edamame (soybeans) every time.  Would it horrify the community to teach kids to chase away crows, bunnies and squirrels, which is the traditional job of children, and their natural instinct anyway? I think we’re not quite there yet.

Three Sisters – and a Brother?

In 2007, we planted a simple three-sister garden inside an old tire at the Orange Rooms.  (It is the Europeans, especially our German ancestors, who like to plant in neat straight rows. In native or indigenous practice, a circle is the traditional shape.) By the end of summer, the corn, beans and pumpkins grow so profusely that the old tire becomes barely noticeable.  This is a simple garden project any school can pursue with a minimum of expense, expertise or effort, incorporating any number of learning objectives while making an amusing comment on our current lifestyle. To the best I can determine from a fair amount of research, tires are typically made from rubber and are remarkably stable, therefore providing little threat of migrating “bad-for-you” chemicals which breakdown from plastic and leach into food.

Food Glorious Food

After one Indian Summer

After one Indian Summer

Food is quite valuable, and compelling not only to children and their families, but also particularly interesting to vandals, bunnies, insects and squirrels.  Indigenous foods long ago developed strategies adapted to our local climate and creatures; so with limited time and resources at one’s disposal, indigenous foods make good sense for public school gardens. Different regions of the country will be presented with different indigenous foods, and different growing conditions, so beware these pretty pictures on the internet, which are floating freely in space, and are thereby severed from their true sense of place. Do your research to determine the indigenous foods of your region, and start from there.

Tomato Treasures

Treasures from the Garden

Treasures from the Garden

Tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes, grow well at the Family Center, because bunnies do not molest them, and our gardens are located too far from the safety of the big trees the squirrels call home.   The children love the pleasure of picking cherry tomatoes, which they hunt for, like hidden treasures among the leaves.  Just three cherry tomato plants can feed a whole preschool classroom, and since cherry tomatoes don’t need to be sliced, they can easily be incorporated into classroom snack time.  Getting what we grow into the school kitchen is a consideration, as popcorn is a choking hazard for small children, foods that must be cooked are challenging to fit into a busy and short preschool morning, and sharp knives are not particularly suitable for young children, (although they might be for older children).

Those Famous Heartland Tomatoes

Better nutrition, fine motor skill development, visual discrimination, sharing opportunities and counting exercises are just a few of the lessons offered by incorporating cherry tomatoes into our playgrounds and into the classroom curriculum.  As a side note, I enjoy the fact that we are famous for our tomatoes here in the Heartland, giving us a unique edge over the land of milk and honey, in at least one department.

Green Caviar

2007-10-30 in the green caviar gardenOne year, none of our tomatoes turned red, so just before a big frost in nearly November, the Blue Room picked all the green tomatoes, and in the famous “Green Caviar” project, asked the parent community to come up with a recipe.  Turning lemons into lemonade, a “Green Caviar” recipe bubbled up from the Russian friend of an Israeli mother.  The children picked the tomatoes, chopped the tomatoes, and mixed the tomatoes with other ingredients to make the famous “Green Caviar.”  The Green Caviar was served for snack, after which the parents got to take a sample home. Cooking projects happen inside the classroom, where the Nature Educator plays a supporting role, with teachers taking the lead.  Proper hand washing and not sneezing into the bowl are only two things to consider when preparing food for the whole class to share.

Not quite Sunset magazine

Working with young children in the garden and in the kitchen is very different from working with adults or even older children in the garden, and standard magazine gardening practices do not apply.  Traditional raised beds look a lot like sandboxes to small children, and toddlers in other classes can’t resist climbing in and crawling around fresh dirt, quickly destroying all the hard work that has just been done.  Signage is pulled from the ground, and thrown around, just for fun; and plants are willfully pulled from of the ground.  One determined toddler can accidentally pull a whole tomato plant out of the ground while trying to pick a single tomato.

Don’t fence me in

Fencing bunnies out has the unintended consequence of fencing children out, and in a world that blindly takes ever more wild space away from children, it is best to avoid the cost, maintenance and hazards of fencing if possible.  Sharp fence corners hover dangerously close to toddler eye level, and in my view, present a hazard worth avoiding.

Small is still beautiful

Small is still beautiful

Small is still beautiful

Working with the “micro” theme, and creatively trying new things all the time, we have met with unexpected success by building very small raised beds, closer to the 2’ x 2’ size.  For some reason, the kids, and baby bunnies, are reluctant to step inside these boxes.  Instead of fences, we simply raise the beds higher than a bunny can hop, to the children’s eye-level, with container barrels.   Because schools and gardens operate on opposite schedules, we are finding success with spring shoulder season crops, which can be planted by children in early spring, maturing before school releases in June.

Bittersweet surrender

Blue * Room * Broccolli

Blue * Room * Broccolli

Who would think that children would love the slightly bitter taste of radish and/or arugula, and yet, when sown and grown in their very own container gardens, the children happily gobble them up in sandwiches. Cabbage butterflies often get our broccoli and cauliflower before we do, but in 2006, we managed to grow enough broccoli to host an impromptu “Broccoli Party.”  Years after the broccoli party, Jordan’s mom turned to me and said, “Oh yes, ever since the broccoli party, Jordan has eaten broccoli whenever I serve it for dinner!”

Harvest Celebrations

When caught up in the spirit of a harvest celebration, children willingly try new foods from the garden.  Rather than allowing the children to harvest from the garden at “will,” we might carefully manage the crop until we have enough to throw a “harvest party” and make a big deal of it, by inviting parents, the classroom community, and of course, the maintenance guys, without whom a harvest would not be possible.  Again, growing food on public school property is a challenge, and we are still working towards our first major “Harvest Party.”

Summer Crops

We’ve had good luck growing cucumbers next to the “Open Times” entrance, because Open Times is running in the early summer when the cucumbers are still maturing.  The vegetable garden next to the Open Times room is a prime location for high maintenance plants, like vegetable gardens, as it is conveniently located next to an easily accessible water supply.  With school facilities increasingly used for summer camps, summer school and other summer programs, we can anticipate the day when schools operate virtually year round, and summer crops will then become a viable option.

Fragile Environments

Failure is good for you!

Failure is good for you!

Vegetable gardens tend to be much more fragile than our native gardens, and there is not much for the children to actually do in a vegetable garden, except look at it, once it is planted.  Additionally, small children are pretty good at planting seeds, but they do not have the fine motor skill required for transplanting tender sprouts, and can accidentally crush eight out of ten plants they transplant. In order to get meaningful food production, transplanting is be better left to parents, with small students allowed to “help.” Vegetable gardens take up a fair amount of space, in exchange for only a few meaningful hours the children get to spend in the garden. (Oh, but those few hours are some of the most thrilling hours in the garden!) On top of that, vegetable gardens tend to get very messy by the end of the summer, (the beginning of the school year), and it is challenging to keep the gardens around our multiple “front doors” presentable, especially in the brutal heat of summer, and during the busy run-up to the first day of school which seems to happen earlier every year.  On top of all that, there are the increased watering demands, and visitations by vandals on weekends.  All of this together presents a fairly high hurdle for growing a few simple vegetables on school property.

The gift of parent involvement

2007-05-30 Alice and JessieThe gift of our vegetable garden came to us through parent Alice, an experienced Science Teacher and Gardener with three small children at home who later became a teacher at the Family Center.  It is Alice’s enthusiasm, energy and experience that enabled us to get the vegetable garden up and going for the benefit of the whole Gay Avenue community. With a butterfly garden regenerating itself, a pumpkin garden to watch over, a front door flower garden to keep presentable, a new herb garden, a “three sisters garden” at the Orange Room, two new butterfly/herb gardens, an eco-literacy garden, three barrel container gardens and a giant Nature Trail project looming in the wings, we had reached the point where the maintenance curve began to overtake new projects, and the added effort offered by just one parent helped us keep ahead of that curve.

Building Teamwork

It is very clear to me that the work required in greening our playgrounds requires a team approach, comprised of teachers, nature educators, administrators, parents, children, maintenance workers, city helpers, teenagers, a variety of nature experts, grandparents and volunteers, all working together in common purpose.  It’s quite a trick to get that many people to play off one sheet of music, but at the Family Center, I do believe it’s starting to sound like music.  This is why it is so important to clarify purpose and story, and work diligently to build a community of “green” workers who are educating themselves and each other about principles, purpose and very best practices.

Building the soil:

Alice brought in trashcan after trashcan of friable UCity compost, while I heaved in untold buckets of compost, worm castings, topsoil and anything else that was as close to free as possible.  I thought about adding vermiculite, but after the guys at Garden Ridge mentioned that “asbestos thing” I couldn’t pull the trigger. Nor did I consider using peat moss, a non-renewable resource; I was happy to hear about that issue many years later from a respected commercial grower.  Cotton burr compost is an option, but cotton is on the receiving end of huge doses of pesticides. See how complicated growing a few vegetables on school playgrounds can get to be?  To grow good vegetables, you need good soil, and that’s the subject of another whole book.  Retail vendors are typically not well versed on organic gardening principles, and as a green librarian, it’s important not to introduce anything harmful to the environment of very small children and their pregnant mothers.

Don’t be scared:

Scary Me

Scary Me

We don’t know much about the effects of pesticides on small children, because obviously, we can’t run pesticide experiments on babies.  What we do know doesn’t seem worth the risk of introducing “bad-for-you” pesticides and soil amendments into an edible school garden.  When it comes to food gardening practices at the Family Center, I confess to being extremely conservative, preferring to follow the Precautionary Principle, avoiding anything that might suggest a potential problem.  (As a post-note five years later, I think it’s interesting that the American Pediatric Association now recommends organic fruits and vegetables for all children; yet with 24% of American children going hungry everyday, we are a far, far cry from meeting the APA’s recommendation.)  By the way, what not to do: don’t put scarecrows up at preschools, it just scares the children.

Black Gold

I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that the soil has never been properly tested at the Family Center gardens, because we get so frightfully overwhelmed by busy spring school calendars.  The big worry, of course, is always lead contamination, but there is no historical evidence to lead me to believe we have any contamination issues on the Gay Avenue campus whatsoever, and I have photos of the Family Center originating as farm land.

Mostly, we have compacted construction clay soil that needs to be “fluffed up” so that air circulation, water and worms can make their way through it, nourishing the roots. It is easy to underestimate the amount of work required to get even a small school garden ready for its first planting season, and protecting every inch of topsoil should be a national security priority.  Topsoil is a non-renewable resource, and it’s floating down the Mississippi river at an alarming rate, primarily due to industrial farming practices. Surprisingly, this could be our biggest environmental problem in the end.

Working in a Sustainable Way

Building the soil is strenuous but critically important work, and we have no way of counting how many teachers, parents, worms or children dug and amended the soil, in the giant soup-like making process that is continually required in order to condition poor school construction soil for planting.  Although it is true that a two-stroke tiller is faster than a pitchfork, a pitchfork does not pollute the air with noise or emissions, and a two stroke engine is not easily put aside for a few moments to chat with a new mother coming out the Open Times room with three small children in tow. The children can help when there is a pitchfork around, and a tiller only brings us more quickly to that fateful day when maintenance chores completely overwhelm the ability to chase new garden dreams.  It’s not only a green and sustainable outcome we’re after, we want to work in a way that is sustainable, and even rejuvenating, for all.  We all grow new muscles getting gardens ready for their first year of planting, and both hands and hearts are pressed to service.

See How They Grow

With Alice’s expertise, and under Elizabeth’s direction as lead teacher, the whole school planted seeds under grow lights to watch them grow.  The seeds were selected, planted, and marked with a stick; and for many years now, every child in the school plants a few seeds and watches them grow indoors while we impatiently wait for it to warm up outside.  Watching seeds germinate is incredibly exciting for the children, and I confess, surprisingly  delightful for teachers as well.  I once read that seeds germinate faster under the high frequency notes of bird song, and I observe that seeds germinate faster when they are closer to the high piping voices of happy children as well. It could be a coincidence, but who knows?

Teachers as experts

The classroom teachers can speak more eloquently about the seedling project as a whole, about the indoor inquiry process, and about the beautiful and elegant materials used by the children and teachers to document and reveal the learning. We have so many authentic nature projects happening inside every classroom, that a one-hour-per-day Nature Educator has no hope of keeping up, and that’s a good thing.  Our respective roles as teachers and resource specialists inform and complement each other in a fluid variety of ways, depending on the people, the project and the time of year.

Failure is good for you!

We transplanted twelve kinds of seedlings into the vegetable garden that first year, but by the end of the summer, everything had been trampled, burned up, or eaten by bunnies, (except for the tomatoes, which showed up later in the “Green Caviar” project.)  It is often the case that in exchange for our hard work, we are greeted by failure, for a variety of reasons, many of them far beyond our control.  Without an understanding that even experienced gardeners suffer their fair share of “failures,” a new gardener can easily become discouraged and give up.  What separates the “green thumbs” from the “brown thumbs” is simply a willingness to seek out new information, combined with a dogged persistence not to give up. Simply put, good gardeners are good learners.  Our families visibly perk up and experience a sense of comfort and confidence when a Green Teacher freely admits to his/her fair share of failures.

Easier than parenting

Learning to garden is not nearly as difficult as learning how to parent, and gardening information, classes and workshops are easy to find in our area. We are lucky to live in close proximity to the world-class Missouri Botanical Gardens, which serves our fair city as a valuable green resource.  As well, our families are incredibly fortunate to have access to the first-class Family Center, with its diverse array of quality parenting programs.  Like parenting, the work of gardening and greening our world is never really finished, and the product is not nearly as important as the process.  And like children, we learn little from our successes, but much from our “failures.”

Baby Turtles

Intellectually, a green librarian program makes it easy for parents to have access to the best new ideas in both the parenting and sustainable education fields.  Emotionally, the point is not so much to find a solution, but rather to continue to find a way to engage with the work of greening our communities. As a Sustainable Educator, an hour per day of meaningful work is enough to dispel the dreadful sense of despair brought on by too much knowledge about what is happening to our natural world. As a parent, gardens are nice places to make lots of mistakes, and give our children practice handling failure and disappointment.  As Catherine likes to say,  “Many baby turtles are born, but few make it to the sea.”   We try out many ideas, in many ways, and make a point to celebrate the few ideas that actually succeed.  Many many acorns fall to the ground, and only a few become mighty oak trees.

Kitchen Garden

As our Open Times vegetable garden has progressed, I wonder if we have the beginning of what might be called a “Potager Garden.”  A Potager Garden is a word from our French heritage meaning “kitchen garden,” where everything is thrown together in artful arrangement: flowers, food and herbs.  Again, we look to the enduring past to find our way forward.  In a “Kitchen Garden,” one simply runs outside to snip a few flowers for the “kitchen” table, perhaps herbs for today’s tea, or cucumbers for today’s snack.  Flowers attract the attention of mothers and bees, herbs are hardy and beneficial in multiple ways, and a few vegetables add wonder and excitement to the garden in spring and fall when school is in session.

Space: the final frontier

A small rounded fence guides children’s feet, and open space in the middle allows children to enter into the garden, without destroying it, to be surrounded by its wonder and delight.  In our rush to fill our time and places with meaningful experiences for our children, it is important to remember that space and emptiness are equally important ingredients in life, as taught by nature, and I find our gardens work best if at least 25-30% of each garden is dedicated to empty space for the children to gather and work, or just play and be.

Matching vision and reality

In short, after years of limited success in working with food crops, it is pretty clear that our collective vision does not quite match the reality on the playground.  And since it is considerably easier to change our vision than to change the weather, we have some educational and intellectual work to do.  From my calculations on the back of paper napkins, as well as from many Dixie cup experiments in the garden, it does not seem practical to come anywhere near providing school lunch from our Mid-Western semi-urban playgrounds. It does make sense get very clear on exactly what we are after with regards to the food link, and that might take a few more years of earnest dialogue, collaboration and experimentation.  I am pretty sure, however, that, as schools, we are in the business of education, and not in the business of food production, and the pursuit of learning and understanding is where we ought to spend our precious and limited time and money.

Inspiration and Perspiration

Because the integral work with the food link is happening inside the classroom, rather than out in the gardens, we should let the gardens inspire our work, rather than drive the work.  The pumpkin butter, pesto making and radish sandwich projects are good examples how to take easy-to-grow foods, and demonstrate to our children and community how to grow and how to cook with seasonal foods.  Our population is very likely to enjoy programs that involve learning new family friendly recipes that are tied to the earth. Picking a few herbs from the garden and adding them to our spaghetti sauce in the kitchen is authentic enough to inspire real learning and life long interest.

Creating Partnerships

In exploring the food link, we might consider joining a CSA, (a community supported agriculture program), or partnering with local farmers to explore local foods and recipes with our families. In this photo we are at the Clayton Farmer’s Market, presenting Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein with the gift of a dinner made from cherry tomatoes and basil grown at the Family Center, an event that celebrates our city’s green initiatives, our school gardens and our local organic Farmer’s Market in one fun and easy hour on a beautiful Saturday morning.

Reweaving the food web:

Hosting children’s food festivals, sponsoring cooking demonstrations, importing chefs, or selling cherry tomatoes, pickles, salsa or popcorn (as we have done with the Orange Room kids on the High School campus) are all ways in which we can help to reweave our local food web.  A permanent community garden will hopefully find it’s natural home after school construction settles down in a few years; and a community garden on each school site will attract knowledgeable elders, immigrants and extra helping hands to school gardens. Indeed, when pursuing the food link, creating a community garden, and policies to go along with it, would be the first order of business.

Field trips are another joyful and rather effortless way to explore our food connection, compared to trying to grow and defend strawberries ourselves. Fortunately, with Catherine, a certified “Foodie,” now at the helm of the Nature Program, it will be exciting to see how the food link evolves at the Family Center as I move on to other pursuits.

Worm Gardening

First there were flowers

First there were flowers

The Worms Go Marching One-by-One

 Early in our work at the Orange Rooms, we created a flower garden where a bush had died, leaving a large patch of dirt.  Starting with the principle of family involvement, we asked families to bring in their choice of plant, and dutifully planted mums during a work-party in the new garden.  Over time, it became clear there was nothing for the children to do with the flowers, and the flower garden became a burden on the teachers, who had to protect against flower picking; thus the new garden slowly disappeared, leaving behind yet another sad patch of dirt on school property.

What goes around...

What goes around…

Try, try again

Beginning again, and more intelligently the third time around, we observed the children more closely, paid better attention to the characteristics of the site (a lot of shade), and created a “Worm Garden.”  The worm garden has its challenges, like muddy knees and muddy shoes, but generally, it offers a surprisingly rich environment which provides the children with the calming sensory experience of digging, exciting creatures like snails to interact with, socially constructive as well as imaginative play, plus infinite lessons about life, nature, and each other.

Taking Notes

Take Note!

From liability to asset

The Worm Garden is an example of how to take a problem, and turn it into a positive outdoor learning environment, one that remains beautiful with almost no effort or expense, one that promotes communal learning, provides habitat for creatures of the earth, and yields a great deal of curricular opportunity at any given point in time. Solving many problems at once with one elegant solution is called “solving for pattern” (by Wendell Berry), and also sometimes known as “systems thinking”, thinking about how the whole system works together, in this case, a school playground ecosystem that includes parents, teachers, children, maintenance workers, creatures and the elements.

Quintiple Bottom-Line

In order to move the greening of a schoolyard forward, start with a maintenance problem first; then, as the second criteria, seek the greatest educational impact.  The third criteria for new projects would be community building, with the fourth criteria a health benefit or general sense of well-being. Making the project or garden look beautiful is the fifth, most fun and challenging criteria.

All together, I call this the “Quintiple Bottom-Line” and it’s a good mental challenge to make sure all five criteria are met before breaking ground on a new project.

  1. Maintenance/Safety
  2. Education
  3. Community Building
  4. Health and Well-Being
  5. Beautification

The mothers of invention

With only a micro amount of time and money at one’s disposal, it is imperative not only to look for the trim tab written about earlier, but also to “solve for pattern” — to solve multiple problems with each effort or project undertaken.  Working in this way forces a community to exercise its creative muscles.  Materials are explored for use in unconventional ways, and a great deal of thought work must go into consultation with others, tinkering in small ways, and working things out on paper, solving the complete puzzle first, long before work begins with the hands.

So much to do!

So much to do!

In terms of a school garden, designing with the “End in Mind” means not only hunting for the trim tab and meeting the “Quintiple Bottom Line”, it also means factoring available resources, team players, ongoing maintenance, and of course, expense.

It’s a delight for active minds and creative problem solvers to work in this way.  Interestingly, too much money often impedes creative thinking and true problem solving. Indeed, a quick look around Saint Louis reveals that the first movers in sustainable education are not necessarily the most affluent.  Such a case is illustrated by installing irrigation systems prematurely, drawing up landscape designs before getting a real feel for the land, or overreaching on projects without understanding the depth of work required.  Sustainable education is a grassroots endeavor, and requires a worm’s eye view as much as a perspective from where eagles fly.

Pink Rocks!

Pink Rocks!

Better than digging for gold:

Hunting for bugs, digging for worms, and finding “treasures” are ad-hoc activities that keep many children busy in the native garden in all seasons.  Pink shovels and boots have a nice way of enticing girls into the worm garden.

As a side note, “treasures” such as butterfly wings, empty snail shells and bird feathers are unique esteem boosters for children.  Furthermore, it seems that finding the treasure is more important than possessing the actual treasure itself, so the loss of the treasure is not a subsequent loss of esteem.  At home, a stack of bricks, some beautiful steppingstones, or even an old board thrown in the shade will create a satisfying worm garden that will keep some preschool children engaged for hours.

Like capturing magic

Like capturing magic

A Green Librarian:

As so eloquently written about in “Sense of Wonder” by Rachel Carson, ecologist and the “grandmother” of the environmental movement, the key to unlocking a child’s love of nature is the presence of a responsive adult nearby to reflect and nurture the child’s natural sense of wonder and amazement.

To draw upon the librarian analogy, for schools to exist without a Nature Educator or “Green Librarian” on staff, would be like expecting children to wander into a school library, pick up a book and learn to read it, and then re-shelve it properly, all without the aid of a teacher, librarian, or parent nearby to help the children decode the words, learn to read and properly care for books. Money spent on an outdoor “Green Librarian” is money well spent, and given the magnitude of our planetary challenges, it seems only a matter of time before schools have outdoor librarians in addition to indoor librarians on staff.

Making Paper

Hearts and Hands:

While the best learning often sneaks up without an announcement in the garden, inside the classroom, a project approach is the best fit between children and nature. One notable project that utilized the Children’s Habitat Garden was the paper-making project done in 2006, spearheaded by the Blue Room. Paper is very real to children, and since the reality of our “paperless society” means we are, in fact, mowing down great swaths of old growth forest in Canada to turn trees into junk-mail, paper is a subject worthy of life-long study. In the paper-making project, the children took flower petals and butterfly wings from our garden, and embedded them into hand-crafted pieces of paper.

Heart and Hands

Heart and Hands

Finding a good fit:

Making paper is somewhat messy, it involves a fair amount of equipment, and because it requires manual dexterity and brings up texture issues, it is a better fit for older preschool children than younger. We involved the parents in harvesting flowers from the garden, which were then dried in a flower press, and sorted into usable containers.  (Children do not, in general, have the ability to selectively harvest from the garden, and will strip a garden clean of any and all flowers once they are given the green light, in a behavior pattern that is very difficult to extinguish once it gets started.)  We hosted a parent “learn-and-do” session, and taught parents the mechanics of making paper.  Because paper-making requires a high adult-to-child ratio, the parents then helped the kids throughout the scope of the project.

2006-10-12 Hands making paper

It’s all in the details

Shredded blue jean material and discarded paper were pulverized in small blender batches until enough “slurry” to fill several tubs was acquired, screens that fit inside the tubs were secured from the Science Department, and a quantity of drying trays, liners, and a fair amount of level drying space was secured.  The paper project was a worthy challenge in many ways for the kids, with several children needing encouragement to get their hands messy.  Project work of this sort prompts all children to work on fine motor skills, sense of design, social collaboration, and verbal skills, to name a few areas of directed development.  It was fun to witness the children’s sense of pride and wonder once the paper dried into something that really did look like real paper!

Many Hands Make Light Work

Many Hands Make Light Work

Spiral journey

Because paper-making is one of those deep subjects that can be spiraled into a life’s work, I think it is a project that can be built upon, in multiple and different ways.  I refer interested parents and teachers to a beautiful and detailed instruction book available through the inter-library exchange called: “The Complete Book of Papermaking” by Joseph Ascension (2003). Paper-making kits can be purchased at craft stores, screens can be stapled together at home with a few tools and just a little know-how from the internet, or, a classroom-sized quantity of screens can be obtained through our High School Science department.

For more info…

You can learn more about the Paper-Making Project from teachers in the Blue Room, or by studying the poster style documentation panel, which serves as reflection piece, communication vehicle and historical record.  In this project, I served a supporting role as helper-teacher and material gatherer.  The credit for this project belongs entirely with the teachers of the Blue Room, who are still (in 2013) at the forefront of inventing compelling nature experiences for the kids.  Incidentally, hand-made paper makes a wonderful gift, seeds can be embedded in hand-made paper and then planted as “wish cards,” and paper can be sculpted into bowls and other structures.

Sensory Walk


Nature for the very, very young

In the wet spring of 2008, we hosted a “Sensory Walk” for some of our very youngest children, the Green Room kids and their teachers.  Doing “nature” with our youngest children can be a challenge, because the Nature Trail is very far away for tiny legs, toddlers are unsteady on their feet, sensory experiences can be overwhelming, hands go into the mouth, and verbal skills are just beginning to emerge. Because young children learn primarily through their senses, we decided the best fit would be to set up a “Sensory Walk” in the Habitat Garden.

Nature laughs with raindrops

It often rains in spring, and it certainly did the spring of 2008.   I have found that it works best to schedule nature activities for a whole week, or better, a whole month, rather than just one day, as it inevitably rains on that one carefully planned and scheduled day.

Nature laughs at school calendars, and I find nature programs work best when we slow down and allow ourselves to unfold, like leaves unfurling, to study nature at nature’s pace.   With two full weeks scheduled for the “Sensory Walks,” despite the unusually dreary weather, we managed to squeeze a few sensory walks into the Green Room calendar.  “Stations” were set up along the tiny trail in the Habitat Garden, with a teacher positioned at each station. The children were prompted to feel the soft lamb’s ears plants, dig in the potting soil box, look under a steppingstone for a bug, smell a flower, and finally, walk through a tub of warm water to make tracks on the warm cement with bare feet.  We had the kids, and their adults, take off their shoes to elevate the sensory experience and underline our intent: that very young children learn primarily through their senses, and that a garden is like a giant sensory box. Indeed, walking barefoot was too much sensory input for some of the kids, and even for some of the adults, as well.

Building complexity

After the toddlers went through the Sensory Walk a few times, we enriched the walk with new materials and activities, and by instructing the children to walk down-hill instead of uphill, building complexity and incremental challenge into the experience as we moved forward in time.  Being outdoors is therapeutic, and revealing of individual learning styles and modalities.  A garden is the perfect place for parents to remember, or discover, that children learn primarily through their bodies and their senses. Additionally, parents can be alert for important clues to the child’s learning modalities, which can be discovered early in the garden.  If a child is primarily a visual learner, or an auditory learner, for example, such a thing will be revealed more readily in nature than in the classroom.  “Sensory Walks” can easily be reinvented in different ways for every age, in every year, still feeling fresh and invigorating in each and every reincarnation.

The Good Fit

Essential Questions

It goes without saying that it is terribly important to match the nature activity to the age and developmental stage of the child, and because the field is so new, even experienced professionals can sometimes miss the mark by a wide margin.

As a parent, watch out for nature programs that are really craft activities in disguise.  There is nothing wrong with making caterpillars out of empty egg cartons, but be clear about the lesson: is it about developing fine motor skills, about nurturing reverence and joy, or about the ability to generate big questions about the caterpillar you just found in the garden?

Art? Or Craft?

Art? Or Craft?

Watering the seeds of joy

At the preschool level, it is our job to find “a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground”.  It is to help toddlers grow in their delight of wild things, to help young children fall ever more deeply in love with nature, and to create rich and indelible experiences that will nourish children for a lifetime.  It’s about real life fairy gardens, ladybug songs that come alive and fly away, and trying to catch a glimpse of that elusive Jack Frost or Peter Cottontail. At the preschool level, nature education is all about cultivating delight, generating a sense of wonder and building powerful imaginations.


Watering the Seeds of Joy

Testing and Tasting

As children get older, and enter elementary school, a good fit might be a deeper exploration of the food link, as parents of this age group have more time to devote to school gardens, children start to make their own food choices, and elementary schools feed kids three or four times a day.  At the elementary level, nature education is also about kids testing themselves against the elements and each other, about keeping the powers of imagination alive, and about creating mixed age – gender dramas, that run over a course of time, in which relationship kinks are worked out.

Wish for World Peace

Wish for World Peace

Nurturing Eco-Warriors

For teenagers, environmental justice is an exploding field of study, as teenagers have the abstract thinking skills necessary to cope with the bad news they will inevitably uncover on the internet. Richard Louv writes extensively about the alienation done by well intentioned parents and teachers, who rush kids to action on the troubles of the world, before kids have even had a chance to fall in love with the world.   Teenagers have the blessed nerve  to do something meaningful about the injustice they see inflicted upon the world, and we might all be grateful and help armor those brave young warriors willing to do fearless battle with modern fire breathing dragons.

Educating Ourselves

As adults, we might educate ourselves about the havoc we are wreaking upon our earth, but lectures about recycling and endangered animals are too theoretical for young children to absorb (Louv). We who work with preschool children are lucky, for as real as our work can get, nature education at the preschool level is all about magic, wonder, imagination and delight.