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.


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