Sunday, April 18, 2010

"I can't believe this is school!"

Plants do not grow in sterile isolation magically; they grow in relationship with the sun and the entire ecological community.Children do not grow in sterile isolation magically; they grow in relationship with human community and ecology. This understanding must inform a teacher’s disposition, our entire school system, and community altogether. There is no indoor substitute for learning and playing outside!

Twenty children from the Tuscaloosa Magnet School studying Alabama Food Culture in a class called "Growing Wild" dug their trowels into a bed of dark compost and clay when planting tomatoes, basil, and marigolds in the Community Organic Garden. New College graduates and students (Lydia Atkins, Lindsey Mullen, Andrea Mabry, Sarah Massey, Lucy Bennett, and Matthew Smith) lead this hands-on field trip with Students for Sustainability officers and Independent Studiers Camille Perrett and Ann Hataway.

It was a day of pleasure and delightful surprises for the kids. Walking through the greenhouses gave them the understanding that plants require certain temperatures and conditions to survive. The kids were amazed that greenhouse structures make it possible for tropical plants to grow in Alabama that would not be able to grow here otherwise because the local climate and weather patterns do not match the plant’s needs. The children developed a deeper appreciation for the native plants of Alabama – such as the fields of wildflowers sprouting at this time of year. The worm bin revealed how food scraps and old materials are naturally recycled, making new soil in the process of travelling through a worm's gut!

Each child was given a tomato, basil, or marigold plant to carry to the garden, where Camille taught about the wonder of companion planting; the students found it interesting that marigold plants repel harmful bugs that would otherwise be attracted to tomato plants. Kids tasted, scratched and sniffed herbs in the garden, and learned about the medicinal properties of local trees. They absolutely loved the pond and hanging on tree limbs.

Field trip organizers said it was important to strike the balance between structured and unstructured time, which is totally different than in a classroom, where time is typically completely structured and accounted for. The “free” time allotted for the kids to explore nature and absorb their surroundings gave curiosity the opportunity to emerge – so many questions arose! What kinds of trees are these? Do deer come through here? Do bears live here? What is this plant called?

Of the twenty kids, only five had been to the Arboretum before. They were so excited to discover that the arboretum is open every day and that they can come out here any time they want if they ask their parents. It was a great opportunity for them to know that the arboretum is a part of their town.

"I can't believe this is school!" -5th grade boy

Lydia Atkins describes her students’ wonder at the opportunity of being outside during school hours, and contemplates that we are all thirsty for a different learning environment. We want to be outside more, surrounded by smells, sounds, different ecosystems, something entirely stimulating.

It takes just a planting in a garden, a walk through some greenhouses, a peek into a worm bin, a hike up to the treetops, to inspire a child's awareness of nature and life as relationship, as a mysterious but inherently participatory adventure. After the field trip, the children reviewed lessons on symbiotic relationships in class. No doubt that their experience learning about companion plants in the garden reinforced this lesson and provided a meaningful foundation for educational engagement.

“Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” — E.O. Wilson, The Naturalist
(photographs taken by Andrea Mabry)

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