Courtyard Allure

By Eve Pranis

"One day when the sun was high and there were clouds in the sky -- but not many -- we went to the courtyard. I saw leaves gleaming in the sun. I saw fragrant flowers. I also saw things that looked like bamboo but had green leaves sprouting up all over, and a few purple flowers here and there. I saw bugs that any time you would come close to them would pop out of their hiding places. I heard leaves rustling in the breeze... It is hard to describe what I felt like but this is what I choose: I felt like I could talk to nature." --4th grade student

"What better context for investigating our curriculum topics of 'organisms and environments' than a school garden," reports fourth grade Groton, CT, teacher Lee Ann Olsen. With an eye toward creating a living laboratory for exploring ecosystem interactions, a committee of students, teachers, and parents designed and created a wildlife-friendly courtyard garden.

Once the garden was completed, the committee worked with teachers to brainstorm how to use it to extend the science curriculum. Each grade chose appropriate concepts to address, then created activities to guide students' explorations. Some teachers have students use meter squares in different sections of the garden as a frame for observing and describing all they see in their mini-ecosystem. Students count and describe the organisms: bees, caterpillars, butterflies, grubs, and so on, where they find them (e.g., under the soil or on flowers of specific plants), and interactions they observe. Second graders explore plant and animal adaptations for survival, such as butterfly colors for protection and warning.

Lee Ann's students count the number of different butterflies that visit their butterfly bushes, scabiosa, and other plants each day, then track temperatures, rainfall, and other weather patterns. "This year, we've seen an abundance of Monarchs," explains Lee Ann. "So students compared our weather data to last year's, then did Internet research to see if a similar pattern existed throughout the country," she adds. Their Internet research lead them to the Journey South Monarch Butterfly Project, where they were able to exchange butterfly art and Spanish messages with Mexican children located near the Monarchs' winter site. Lessons in other areas were a bonus that naturally emerged from the project. Wooly bear caterpillar sitings sparked an impromptu investigation of weather "lore," for instance.

"When the garden committee presented our case to school board members, we wanted to show how the courtyard supports curriculum standard," says Lee Ann. "By sharing student journal entries, curriculum displays, and engaging photos, we won over some important new advocates," she adds.

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