Our students love science, especially when we have opportunities to be outdoors! Their natural curiosity inspires them to question...everything! Our journey began with a monoculture of grass and a few interspersed weeds and is slowly emerging as a living laboratory and wildlife haven. This experience has helped increase our students understanding of their relationship with not only their schoolyard, but also their community and beyond and the responsibilities they have to protect and conserve our natural world.
Even though only our third graders had collected some habitat data at the beginning of the year, we extended this project to include all of our K thru 5 students, whom assisted with completing the Habitat Investigation activity in the Habitat Connections curriculum. Upon completing a YardMap that included additional wildlife species, the students observed that very little wildlife visits or calls the space home, since it does not contain sufficient food, water, or shelter. Our third, fourth, and fifth graders extended the conversation to include the adaptations of native plant and animal species. Therefore, the students were able to determine what components would be necessary to attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators, and small reptiles, and amphibians. This involved adding, in addition to the garden vegetable boxes, plants that offer food sources all four seasons, including, but not limited to, seeds for birds, nectar and host plants for pollinators, trees, shrubs, rock piles, and brush piles for shelter, birdbaths and a small pond, and improvement of the soil.
Additionally, we have partnered with our school zone high school’s agricultural and special education departments. The students in each of these departments will be working with our students, as they complete lessons and maintain the gardens with our primary grades. Furthermore, in-house our students will also be mentoring across grade levels: kindergarten with third, first with fourth, and second with fifth. We had initiated a similar program with reading buddies, with tremendous benefits not only academically, but also socially.
We are still in the process of installing the garden due to several factors that have hampered completion, including the delayed receipt of funding, county approval of a small covered awning and seating and a concrete path for wheelchair accessibility to two of our raised garden beds, and our principal unexpectedly being transferred, which halted our momentum. However, we continued to meet with our high school partners, PTA and garden committee, discussing our next steps. In fact, the garden beds will finally be installed mid-July, awaiting the arrival of our students whose first day of school is August 1, 2016.
Despite the delay we did create a smaller versions of our garden in large garden pots, creating both pollinator and vegetable gardens. Additionally we were able to put up birdfeeders for both seed eating and nectar feeding birds. Unfortunately, we tried to get the webcam to transmit, but realized after hours of frustration that we needed an additional piece, which has since been ordered and will hopefully work now. After watching numerous other avian webcams, we are excited to capture the number and variety of birds that will be visiting our school garden area. Happily though, our students were able to submit the data they collected while completing their outdoor investigations, which included birds, ladybugs, monarch butterflies, clouds, and tree buds.
Notwithstanding, we still feel that we are well on our way to exceeding our goals. All of these opportunities have increased the students’ understanding of their relationship with nature, as core subjects were integrated through cooperative group activities in a real-world setting. Through this approach, students are beginning to see how these subjects are relevant to what they are studying in the classroom and the real world. We have seen their self-confidence increase and an improved sense of responsibility and belonging to their community. They are making connections to what they are learning in the classroom with what they are observing outdoors, not only at school, but at home too. Additionally, they LOVE submitting their citizen science data, understanding that they are helping make a difference! Lastly, they excitedly share stories of observing many of the birds we are studying in their neighborhoods, including killdeer, robins, wrens, and cardinals. They even recognize their calls when we go outdoors!
Thanks to the funding from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Alaska Fertilizer our students, many of whom do not play outside, get their hands dirty, or have much knowledge of the outdoors, are being provided with gardening skills, nutrition, biology, ecology, mathematics, and art in the outdoor learning center. We believe that having students spend more time learning outside will help them become more engaged with school and their environment. Clark Creek Elementary has become an exciting place, as they search for bird nests, 9-spotted ladybugs, onion grass, tulip poplar leaves, mushrooms, and other amazing “treasures” and continue to build their understanding that everything on this planet is connected. We share that oftentimes, we may not understand the connections, but we respect them. Thank you again for being part of our journey in providing a hands-on, minds-on experience for our students.