Nature’s classroom, up close

October 1, 2011

As she waited to interview for the principal’s job at Center City’s Trinidad charter school, Evie Wiseman noticed the raised beds outside the school’s doors, which held herbs and blooming vegetables. The touch of nature impressed Wiseman, who thought it was a good sign for the city school she hoped to lead.

Wiseman got the job. At the helm, she has supported the school’s two gardens, which she showed off Saturday during the annual D.C. Schoolyard Greening tour.

“It’s the perfect metaphor for what we do here. We grow plants, and we’re also growing minds and creating scholars,” Wiseman said. “The garden is bright, and that reflects our student body and our school.”

School gardens have received a boost from first lady Michelle Obama, who in recent years has brought D.C. schoolchildren who tend them to the White House garden to promote healthy eating.

On Saturday, about two dozen people, including avid gardeners, environmental advocates and curious community members, braved wet, chilly weather to step on garden stones, walk through brush and listen to educators and volunteers explain how they use nature to extend their teachings beyond classroom walls.

In its fifth year, the tour aims to highlight school gardens around the city, raise environmental awareness and encourage donations of time and money. A map shows dozens of spots around the city where students learn how to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs, tend to plants, collect rainwater and study insects.

“We want to show people the power of school gardens, that they can get children outside and spark a love of learning,” said Ariel Trahan, co-president of the D.C. Environmental Education Consortium, which sponsored Saturday’s tour and since 1993 has worked with teachers on environmental lessons. “Children can watch a seed grow into a plant or in an art class sketch butterflies and the beetles in the garden. We want to teach them they are part of their school and a larger ecosystem.”

Saturday’s plan took the tour from Southeast to Northwest. One crew zigzagged around in a warm van, while another group of about a half-dozen pedaled between schools on bicycles — an environmentally conscious choice that Mother Nature rewarded with chilly rain.

At Catherine R. Watkins Elementary School in Southeast, second-grade teacher Kendra Heffelbower explained how students worked on literacy by writing and reading the garden signs. A wood canopy serves as an amphitheater where teachers can take students outside, Heffelbower said, and children always pore over the “Creepy Crawly Zone,” an assortment of tree logs and trunks they turn over to practice math skills by counting insects and measuring the distance that they crawl.

Walker Jones Education Center in Northwest, which serves pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has a nearly one-acre farm that features swiss chard, pumpkins and carrots. Students go out once a month for lessons there, said manager Sarah Benardi, adding that the farm hopes to get chickens soon.

Tour participant Elaine Tholen, who manages environmental education for Fairfax County schools, said the neat rows and spaciousness of the Walker-Jones farm inspired her to rethink what was possible. “We have room in the suburbs,” she said. “Maybe I should think bigger.”

Kealy Rudersdorf, who visited the gardens Saturday on her bicycle, said she has worked as a teacher and an engineer and volunteered for a year on a chocolate farm in Costa Rica. She recently moved to Arlington County and has been volunteering in D.C. gardens, hoping to turn her passion into a full-time position.

The Walker-Jones garden farm was “amazing,” she said.

“I was really pleasantly surprised,” Rudersdorf said. “A lot of schools went outside the box with the garden design.”

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