Student Designers Create Learning Oasis

By Eve Pranis

"When our new school was built, my fourth, fifth, and sixth graders were drawn to the birds and other wildlife that gathered in the wetland areas in the schoolyard," says Montessori teacher Penny Szczechowski from Ann Arbor, MI. So when the idea of creating a garden came up, they knew they wanted theirs to be a place where wildlife could come to find shelter, water, food, and places to raise young. Confident that children grow when they can help direct the course of their learning, Penny gave her class the chance to run with an idea.

Students realized that, to bring their idea to life, they'd have to find out what both wildlife and plants needed to survive. By observing life around them and researching key factors that sustain living things ? they were ready to build a vision. First, the class set some goals for decision making: where to locate the garden, types of features to include, and what to plant based on what would grow in their area. Next, they formulated a plan of how to meet plant and wildlife needs, developed a timeline of what they could accomplish the first year, and considered the budget and garden maintenance.

Before deciding just what to plant and where to place it, Penny's young planners decided to conduct a site inventory. Together, the class selected a site that had enough daily sunshine (6 to 8 hours) to grow flowers, herbs, and vegetables; was close to a water source; and had potential for expansion. They deliberately placed it behind the fence that marked off the playground, so small children could see the garden, but not be able to disturb it. Finally, students dug into learning about their unique soil so they could choose plants accordingly. (The Internet, plant books, encyclopedias, and garden catalogs are some of the resources students drew on in their planning and troubleshooting.)

To inspire their garden wish list, the class perused books and magazines and reflected on what they'd seen growing at home and in the community. Next, they voted on and prioritized their favorite features. The site would soon sport gardens for herbs, rock garden plants, vegetables, and fruits; a wildflower and butterfly oasis; a sundial; a birdbath; and later, a dye garden.

Tackling Challenges

"Once we had the basic site selected and had measured and mapped out the plots, students broke into groups of four to six according to their specific garden interests and began to research what to plant and how," says Penny. She explains that each group was responsible for making decisions and solving problems that arose. For instance, the vegetable and fruits group, frustrated by losing precious produce to deer, learned about and erected a fence made from netting to protect their crops from intruders. The young gardeners also discovered that having a garden in the midst of a natural (read weedy!) area, meant the invasion of weed seeds on the wing. One of their pending solutions? Create a barrier made from grapevines!

"The students' original garden plan called for paths covered with wood chips," says Penny. "But we soon found that, even with heavier layers of mulch, weeds were a problem." They also found that the plastic edging they had buried between the paths and beds heaved as it froze and thawed. After researching and pondering how to create more stable beds and paths, the class decided on building wooden beds reinforced with metal corners and lining the pathways with landscape fabric covered with gravel or stones.

All the while, the class documented its growing experiences, challenges, and lessons learned along the way in a garden book. Penny explains that the book, which helps youngsters build language skills, is also a great way to chronicle progress and a good resource for public relations.

Cross-Age Mentoring

"A unique aspect of our garden project is that it is almost totally child-directed and involves students teaching students," says Penny. She explains that, each year, returning fifth and sixth graders are responsible for involving the incoming fourth graders in the project. The youngsters choose which garden group they'd like to work with and the older students show them the ropes as they start planning for the new growing year. They also plan garden tours for children in the primary grades and set rules for behavior to keep the youngsters and the garden safe.

"One of the most rewarding aspects of the garden for all ages is to have a place to be quiet, observe nature, and enjoy the natural world," says Penny. "It's not unusual to find students, clipboards and paper in hand, writing and drawing in their nature journals."

Expanding the Vision

As they created a site plan and brought it to fruition, Penny's environmental stewards had their eyes opened to new possibilities. For instance, when a local pond and water garden company offered to sponsor a day dubbed "Kids Build a Pond," students, parents, and teachers dove in. The deal? The school would purchase the pond kit at cost and the company would donate rock, labor, and the expertise to the project. Students have discovered which plants they can plant in and around the homemade pond to simulate natural pond flora.

One of the science teachers is helping students expand part of the site around a natural water retention area into paths, a wildflower area, tree plantings, and other small natural gardens. A dye plant garden, now in its infancy, will provide materials and inspiration for dyeing cloth for weaving projects. The next couple of projects on the burner are big ones: building an outdoor amphitheater for holding classes and putting in a greenhouse in which to conduct studies and raise garden plants.

At the end of each school year, the students try to get their garden in great shape for a family garden celebration. There, they welcome visitors and share the newest chapter from their emerging garden book." The kids also share poetry they've written, do a musical presentation, and invite families to sign up to adopt and care for the garden a week each summer.

Penny explains that because students are in charge of making decisions and directing the course of the project, their involvement and pride has soared. "The children have learned to work cooperatively, shared knowledge and skills, and educated the younger children, and they have a renewed sense of accomplishment each spring," explains Penny. "When we talk about saving the natural world, the kids have come to appreciate that even on a tiny scale, we can make the world better." A plaque in the garden sums up their feelings: To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

Congratulations to Daycroft! Their schoolyard has been designated a National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitat (the only one in their county) and received a "Kids Growing with Dutch Bulbs" Grant from the National Gardening Association.

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