Kindergarten classes at Carmel (IN) Elementary School cultivate flowers in Alaska, while fifth graders tend cotton and peanuts in the Deep South. They're not national travelers but participants in an ambitious "Courtyard U.S.A." garden project. Faced with the specter of expensive landscaping for a renovated school courtyard, teachers and PTO members brainstormed a more educational use of the courtyard. They chose to create an outdoor learning lab as a centerpiece for their environmental program, with features such as a creek, wildflower prairie, butterfly garden, herb garden, and soil erosion study area arranged to represent appropriate areas, climates, or prominent U.S. features, all contained within 45- by 80-foot edging in the shape of the U.S..
Each grade is assigned an area of the U.S. and is responsible for starting plants in GrowLabs, maintaining the area, and initiating appropriate activities. First graders, for instance, start pumpkins, popcorn, cornflowers, and
Oriental poppies for the prairie and Midwest, while second graders grow gourds, sunflowers, and Indian corn, and harvest the corn and pumpkins planted by the previous year's class in the Indian theme area east of the Mississippi. Third grade classes work on solving soil erosion problems near the Rocky Mountains (a soil mound) and at the edges of the pond (Gulf of Mexico), and raise such flowers as California poppies, cardinal flowers, and Mexican hats. Fourth graders are responsible for the mid-Atlantic vegetable, butterfly, and herb garden. Fifth graders cultivate cotton, peanuts, and Texas bluebells for the South.
While grade levels focus on specific areas, the entire garden is open to any student or classroom for observations and investigations -- releasing and observing butterflies, making calculations at a garden-based weather station, or drawing and comparing flowers throughout the garden. "By making subject matter applicable to everyday life and tackling hands-on, minds-on problems at levels appropriate for the child," says former courtyard coordinator Sally Rushmore, "this environmental, geographic garden keeps learning relevant." A student might stand in California and hold one end of a tape measure while another student stands in Indiana holding the other end, she explains. The students then measure the distance and use a scale to determine how far it really is from California to Indiana. They might next figure out how long it would take to drive or fly and relate that to a real map. "Literature and regional differences are understood more readily as students read stories about prairie life after actually helping to create a tall grass prairie complete with a windmill," notes Sally.
Students are encouraged to take action beyond the daily garden tasks. The nature club, for instance, helps harvest corn and sunflower seeds for winter birdfeed. Several students, reports Sally, have been inspired to speak at public meetings in favor of preserving prairies and other natural environments in public areas. "This courtyard garden has provided a centerpiece for helping teachers and children explore our world and to prepare to participate effectively in an increasing number of local and national decisions that require an understanding of our environment," she adds.
Support for such an ambitious undertaking has come in part from a small group of districtwide parent volunteers, solicited through the PTOs, who support a range of GrowLab and gardening projects. "In our district, there are a lot of parents who garden, but who hadn't realized that their skills could be valuable to teachers tight on time and resources," says teacher Gordon Hopp. These "courtyard coordinators" arrange for appropriate resource people or parents to help with outdoor or classroom learning sessions, maintain a resource closet, plan lessons and plantings with teachers, oversee garden maintenance, act as liaisons between the staff and PTO, and organize families and teachers to care for the garden in the summer. Carmel students and teachers help fund ongoing supplies with an annual sale of perennials, all started from divisions from plants in the perennial garden. Teachers received professional development support through environmental education inservice workshops and are participating in the National Gardening Association's Growing Science Inquiry project.