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.


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