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?
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.
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.