Program gives students a fresh experience with nature
Weeds are not welcome in the gardens at Newton’s Sunset Elementary School.
As the classes learn to identify weeds, some of the children even spend time at recess plucking the invaders from the soil. “They take their jobs as weed pickers very seriously,” says Amber Celestin, who teaches 4th grade at the school. “Woe to the bindweed that dares show its face here at Sunset!”
The garden project also serves as a valuable teaching tool for a wide variety of lessons. “It provides an outdoor learning lab for countless science activities,” Celestin says. “It gives us a place to go for journal writing and silent reading. We have done a lot of measurement and graphing activities with the site in math. Planting and caring for that space has given them a sense of belonging and community that I think they were lacking before.”
Sunset Elementary’s gardens represent just a fraction of the nature projects that dozens of Kansas teachers have brought back to their schools after attending training in the Earth Partnership for Schools program. The training helps educators include lessons on the environment in their curriculum, and the hands-on projects put the students in close contact with nature.
Sunset Elementary’s four planting sites include 33 species of native grasses and forbs. The first three are butterfly/demonstration gardens, and the playground hosts one of these gardens. The fourth site was planted in Fall 2008, and it’s a “sensory garden” that includes native plants that appeal to the five senses with their interesting scents, colors and textures. “My students are becoming prairie experts,” Celestin says. “They love to be on the site. It has given them a connection to the outdoors that is tangible because it is right here in our own space. A lot of my students live very close to the school, and our playground is the only green space they have to play in.”
Children sometimes surprise Celestin with how much they have learned from the gardens. After she asked her students to each choose a plant and write a research paper about it, one boy spotted his plant during a field trip to the Sedgwick County Zoo. “He made me stop and take his picture with it,” Celestin says.
One evening, Celestin was at the grocery store when she heard someone calling her name. “I turned around to see this student running toward me with a bouquet of flowers she had just picked up in the floral department,” she says. “She was so excited to tell me that she recognized her plant in that bouquet and that she was going to buy the flowers so she could share her plant with her mom.”
With support from a $24,882 Kansas Health Foundation grant, Hesston College and Dyck Arboretum of the Plains involved teachers and about 1,800 students in Earth Partnership for Schools in 2008. Participating schools come from Wichita, Sedgwick, Maize, Haysville, Junction City, Goddard, Hutchinson, Buhler, Pretty Prairie, Peabody, Marion, Walton, Hamilton and Goessel, says Brad Guhr, prairie restoration and education coordinator at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.
“Kansas Health Foundation funding has been critical to the existence of Earth Partnership for Schools in Kansas,” Guhr says. The Foundation grant helps pay for a staff person to administer all aspects of this program, including teacher recruitment, leading the summer and winter training sessions for teachers and lending expertise to the schools when planting time comes.
“By having students transform school landscapes into natural habitats, their hands-on studies of science, math and related subjects can show them why learning is important and that they can make a difference,” Guhr says.
Hesston College and the arboretum solicit applications from south-central Kansas schools throughout the school year. If you are interested in applying for the program or you would like to have more information about it, contact Brad Guhr at 620-327-8127, e-mail him at email@example.com or visit the arboretum’s Web site at www.dyckarboretum.org.
The training sessions for the Earth Partnership for Schools program are held in Wisconsin. “I came back from Madison feeling excited and ready to start planting,” Celestin says. “I am constantly finding ways to integrate our prairie sites here at Sunset into my lessons, and I think that exposure gives my students fresh insight into larger environmental issues because they now see the impact in our own back yard.”