Washington Area Schools, Including Hollin Meadows, Take Lessons Outside

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

By the first week of spring, a crowd of shivering daffodils offered a lonely spray of color to a still-dormant garden outside Hollin Meadows Elementary School. But the bright blooms were not safe for long amid the prying fingers of two dozen curious fourth-graders.

Winter coats guarded the children against a chilly breeze, but their mittens came off as they pulled leaf after buttery leaf from the flower and gave names to each of its parts.

"It's breathtaking," said Nikos Booth, 9, as he rubbed the golden pollen from the stamen onto his finger.

Lots of elementary students learn plant anatomy by studying a diagram and labeling the parts or circling terms on a worksheet. At Hollin Meadows in Fairfax County, they get their hands dirty.

Science teacher Jason Pittman said students often say their favorite class is recess. "That's disappointing to hear as a teacher," he said, "but you can capitalize on that and take the learning outside."

Five years ago, a small group of parents sought to create a garden at Hollin Meadows. Now, 14,000 square feet of gardens surround the school, and virtually every classroom has spilled outside.

Students measure worms in math classes and plant peanuts when learning about Virginia history. Reading time happens in an outdoor courtyard where the walls are painted like library shelves. Cinnamon basil plants are growing hydroponically in the science lab from seeds that astronauts flew into space. The children are growing seedlings to sell on Earth Day, an early lesson in entrepreneurship.

As more children struggle with obesity and awareness grows about global warming, outdoor learning is becoming a popular education concept.

Environmentalists are lobbying Congress to attach a "No Child Left Inside" provision to the No Child Left Behind law when it is reauthorized. The provision would set aside money for opportunities, including gardens, for children to learn about the natural world.

"When kids graduate, they need to not only read, write and count, but they need to know something about the environment," said Don Baugh, vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Students from Bancroft Elementary in Northwest Washington became instant symbols for healthy eating and sustainability when they helped first lady Michelle Obama break ground for a White House garden this month. They have been tending their own vegetable garden back at school.

About 80 D.C. public schools have a garden or have attempted one in recent years, said Grace Manubay, co-president of the D.C. Environmental Education Consortium, which keeps a list at http://www.dcschoolyardgreening.org.

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