Planting the Seeds of Life Skills
Washington Area Schools Use Natural Classrooms As 'No Child Left Inside' Movement Gains Traction

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

The list includes a "peace garden" at Cardozo High School, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and a range of butterfly, native species or rain gardens that often serve as outdoor classrooms. An annual D.C. School Garden Week includes a bus tour through a handful of new projects.

In Montgomery County, a garden project that links students from Takoma Park Middle School, Montgomery Blair High School and Montgomery College is underway. Students, many of them English learners, earn community service credit, and the younger ones get a glimpse of college life. In Arlington County, Tuckahoe Elementary maintains a blog with regular updates about classroom excursions in its extensive gardens and wildlife habitats.

Hollin Meadows Principal Jon Gates said the gardens boost school pride and help children learn through exploring and observing rather than memorizing.

Test scores, parents point out, have improved in recent years, and the achievement gap is narrowing at a school in which almost half the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty. They attribute some gains to the highly engaging outdoor learning approach.

The gardens are also a bridge between school and community. Many nurseries and businesses donate tools, and parents are often on hand to help with weeding.

Shawn Akard, a parent who spearheaded the project, is now on staff as a part-time outdoor education coordinator. Her job: helping teachers "green" their lesson plans and "digging in the dirt" with students.

One afternoon last week, she helped fourth-graders plant lettuce seeds, showing them how to poke their finger in the soil and then shake the pots lightly back in place so the seeds would have room to grow.

Then she taught a science lesson about constant and changing states of matter by digging holes in the "soil exploration area" with a handful of enthusiastic second-graders.

Akard's office is a wooden tool shed. It's painted blue. It smells of cedar, and it's stocked with hand trowels and potting soil. Outside the door, a cross-stitched sign reads: "All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today."

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