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How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

Today’s interview is with Elise Dillingham, Wildlife Ecologist and DRLC Program Coordinator for the Sonoran Desert Network and Desert Research Learning Center. Elise was interviewed by Sehdia Mansaray.

 

How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

At Tucson’s Desert Research Learning Center (DRLC), the National Park Service is working to ensure that environmental education is accessible to everyone.

Cienega High School students made adobe bricks and are building a mini horno oven.

There are more than 61 million people with disabilities living in the US. For many of them, national parks can be difficult to experience. Some parks offer few opportunities for people in wheelchairs to explore areas beyond the frontcountry. At others, it’s difficult for people with disabilities to find information about what kinds of opportunities are available to them once they get there. For people to care about national parks, they need to feel like they belong in them. Through educational programs and citizen-science opportunities, Elise Dillingham and the DRLC staff are helping to make that happen.

Elise Dillingham helping students weave agave fibers to make bracelets.

Located adjacent to Saguaro National Park, the Desert Research Learning Center is an ideal space for connecting people, resources, and science. The center provides space and support for visiting researchers and interns, hosts hands-on experiential learning for local student groups, and displays examples of sustainable practices and native horticulture. Its mission is to promote the scientific understanding, protection, and conservation of Sonoran Desert national parks.

The DRLC has ongoing partnerships with several local schools. When the center’s coordinator, Elise Dillingham, learned from teachers at Cienega High School that students in special education programs often have limited field-trip opportunities, she wanted to make sure the DRLC was one of them.

This challenged Elise and her staff to see their programming through a different lens. They made changes to many of their standard activities, so people with a variety of differing abilities could participate. Field projects were brought closer to the DRLC. A lingering plan to build wheelchair ramps to an artificial stream was completed. Classroom activities were modified to make them more tactile and accessible to students with different learning styles.

Cienega High School students learning how to harvest fibers by pounding agave leaves.

With no formal training on how to work with people with disabilities, the DRLC staff also learned to adapt to the various ways students engaged—or didn’t engage—with the activities. Sometimes, students needed to leave in the middle of a program, had outbursts, or participated with headphones on. With the help of the students’ regular teachers, Elise and her staff came to understand these as new behaviors to learn to work with—not signs of disrespect.

Their efforts have paid off. A group of students from Cienega High School now visits the DRLC for a variety of programs several times each semester. Students are becoming more engaged and getting the opportunity to learn about and visit national parks, just as their peers without disabilities do. For a few students, their first trip to DRLC was their first time on a field trip.

Elise shares the story of one young man who started in the program as a freshman and initially sat through DRLC programs with his headphones on and was not interested in volunteering to help with activities. Over time, he became more comfortable with the programs and eventually was the first to volunteer to complete tasks, such as setting up remote wildlife cameras. By the time he was a senior, he said he was sad to graduate because he wouldn’t be able to participate in the DRLC’s programs anymore.

Cienega High School student picked rainbow Swiss chard from the DRLC’s heritage food garden.

The improved programming at the DRLC is just one example of the National Park Service’s recent efforts to make parks in Arizona more inclusive. In collaboration with Special Olympics Arizona, several parks have created the Unified Hiking program, which provides opportunities for Southern Arizona athletes and supporters to maintain healthy, active lifestyles. The kickoff hike was in Flagstaff, but more hikes are being planned in Tucson and Phoenix. Finding wheelchair accessible trails has been a challenge for these events, but they plan to keep up their efforts. The park service has also published a plan for improving accessibility across the system. And US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can apply for a National Park Service Access Pass, which provides free admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five Federal agencies—for life.

For its part, the DRLC plans to continue to improve programming and expand opportunities for students with disabilities. Elise would also like to get formal training that would help her and her staff to better serve these students. She encourages anyone looking to engage with diverse student groups to talk with local teachers to learn about their community’s needs and ways to assist.

 

Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace

Today’s conversation is with Kendall Kroesen,  Community Outreach Coordinator at Mission Garden.  Kendall was interviewed by Lorianne Barnett, May 14, 2020.  This blog was compiled by Jan Schwartz.

Do you ever wonder how people lived in this difficult desert environment long ago? What kinds of food did they grow and how did they grow it as the landscape changed?

Mission Garden is a re-creation of a Spanish Colonial walled garden, developed by the non-profit organization that manages it: Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. Located in Tucson, AZ, it is a living agricultural museum that interprets over 4,000 years of Tucson’s history through heritage fruit-trees, traditional local heirloom crops, and edible native plants. This beautiful, lush garden sits at the base of Sentinel Peak, AKA “A Mountain.” Because of the dark, volcanic rock on the hill, the Native American village that once sat at the base of this hill was known as S-cuk Son (Base of Black). This is the origin of today’s name, Tucson.  Many Tohono O’odham still refer to the city as S-cuk Son.

60-day corn with “the hill” in the background

By growing and harvesting these heritage crops and sharing this historical knowledge with the public, Mission Garden helped Tucson become the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in December 2015. It is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network which has several fields, including Gastronomy. According to the UNESCO website, “Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson has the longest agricultural history of any city in the United States of America. It has a 300-year tradition of vineyards, orchards, and livestock ranching that have forged the wide array of the local heritage foods, a source of identity and vitality for the local population of 1 million inhabitants. The distinctive cuisine of Tucson developed from a culturally layered history, a variety of heritage food ingredients, and a continuity of traditional food preparation techniques.” https://en.unesco.org/creative-cities/tucson

The Mission Garden website includes a short timeline of the garden since its inception. Following the initial planting of the Spanish Colonial Heritage Fruit Tree Orchard in February and March 2012, Mission Garden expanded to interpret the timeline of our remarkable agricultural story.  Specific gardens illustrate that timeline starting with the Early Agricultural period and continuing with Hohokam, Pre-contact and Post-contact O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, Territorial and Statehood Chinese, Yaqui, Anglo and African American farming, and ending with Tomorrow’s Garden.  Tomorrow’s Garden combines ancient knowledge with modern experimental solutions for today’s challenges.

Garden harvest

Mission Garden continuously works to increase the involvement of the Indigenous communities within Pima County. The Garden tells the long and complex history of the area going back to the Indigenous peoples of more than 4,000 years.  The two annual Native American Arts Fairs have been successful in attracting participation from several tribes.  The artists work in a variety of media from baskets to jewelry to painting.

Kendall Kroesen, Community Outreach Coordinator, emphasizes the importance of building relationships.  Kroesen reaches out to Indigenous people to create more diversity in volunteers, board members, and visitors.  Unfortunately, the global pandemic has made it difficult to find the space to continue to cultivate those relationships. Fortunately, Mission Garden now has a University of Arizona graduate student intern from The Coverdell Fellows Program to help move the work forward. The garden is also recruiting an AmeriCorps employee.  In addition, Mission Garden looks to the community and to other organizations to help build the relationships needed to be a fully inclusive organization. To date, FOTB has partnered with over 50 other community organizations.

San Ysidro Festival 2020

Mission Garden has a number of festivals throughout the year which bring in multicultural audiences.   The Agave Festival celebrates agave as a food, a fiber and, of course, tequila.  This festival is a part of the larger city celebration of the agave plant and involves native communities.  Additional festivals such as the Membrillo (quince) Festival and the Festival of San Ysidro, the largest festival, occur yearly.  Garden board members with connections and relationships within their communities make these and other festivals possible.  The Garden also has a strong relationship with the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, which is reflected in the Chinese heritage garden.

If we could experience history through taste and smell, how might we look differently at our local food sources? Would we be more likely to try unfamiliar foods?

For more information on the edible gardens of the Mission Garden please visit their website at https://www.missiongarden.org/

and visit the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage at https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/preserving-historical-edible-landscapes-arizona

 

Whose story do we tell?

Today’s conversation is with Melanie Rawlins from Interpretive Services at Tumacacori National Historical Park. She was interviewed by Kathe Sudano on May 8, 2020.

What are the ways the world is changing regarding environmental and natural history?  Why are we hearing so much about diversity and inclusion?  Why is that conversation necessary in the history of a century old mission in an area that sheltered and supported the Southwest’s Native people such as O’odham, Apache and Yaqui/Yoeme?

Tumacacori National Historical Park has a multitude of cultural influences that span centuries covering the colonial period of American history. The park is in the Santa Cruz River Valley in the region of what is now southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico.  Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino (a Jesuit missionary from Italy) arrived in 1691 to set up a system of missions and smaller communities.

When interviewed for a survey as part of an AZ Master Naturalist /Arizona Association for Environmental Education research project to better understand underrepresented audiences in natural and cultural history programs earlier this year, Melanie Rawlins, NPS Park Interpreter, stated that the park’s most meaningful success in improving their diversity and inclusivity efforts came out of a very informal network that was in the works for several years.  Several agencies were asked to fulfill the commitment to send home Native remains and artifacts discovered accidentally in the building of a Tucson roadway.

 

Rawlins and other NPS team members developed respectful and even affectionate relationships with tribal leaders through the process.

A bond was formed born of respect and the joint effort to honor the deceased.  “If you make friends, they will show up,”  Rawlins stated. The park nurtured and fed the relationship and, as any decent interpreter would, asked how are we doing telling the story? What was missing?  

The NPS park staff had over two hundred webpages with about one third devoted to individual priests.  It felt a bit ‘lopsided’ per Rawlins as there were clearly stories not being told.  Using a searchable database containing individual, handwritten mission records and diaries that are still being translated called Mission 2000, more of the contributions to the community from underrepresented individuals are being revealed.   People who might not have been educated or able to write themselves are still part of the story thanks to the efforts of staff and volunteers that link families and events together using baptismal, burial or marriage ceremony records. Efforts are still underway to recruit volunteer translators to comb through the collection.  

The park website also has activities to encourage students to think in a critical way about how the early residents may have been portrayed.  The relationship between the Native Americans of the area and the Spanish, Christianized natives, and mestizos was a relatively peaceful one. Native Americans were encouraged to learn a trade, worship in the church, and become baptized.  The balance of power had shifted and per the Tumacacori records, discontent among some of the native people led to a well-organized revolt in 1751. 

Tumacacori has been working to make all aspects of their interpretation more inclusive of the indigenous story. They created an event to celebrate the O’odham culture, and one to celebrate the Yaqui/Yoeme culture.  There is a recently completed park video, in which the O’odham are the base of the story, rather than the Spanish. The park has revised the self-guided tour, working to keep the O’odham residents in view at all times. Piece by piece, Tumacacori NPS is trying to place the indigenous residents in the forefront.

Lesson plans available on the Tumacacori website for teachers ask students,  “how can a word choice influence perspective?  How do the reports and letters of the Pima Uprising of 1751 use connotative and denotative meanings to portray the events?”  By “providing various answers to questions, students have an opportunity to investigate some of the possible causes of the rebellion.”

Are you interested in journeying into the past?  Tumacacori National Historical Park is always interested in volunteers that help to connect the pieces of each person’s history.  In this way, the park is striving to tell everyone’s story.   

 

  

 

 

Who Let the Kids Out?

Today’s conversation is with Blue Baldwin, Ecology Program Coordinator for Manzo Elementary School. Blue was interviewed by Kathe Sudano on May 11, 2020. 

Manzo Elementary in Barrio Hollywood has a reputation.  First, they not only increased the amount of time students spend outside (which in 2015 was listed as* thirty minutes) but the staff started a small garden in 2003 that turned into the title of one of the ‘greenest schools in America’ by the Center for Green Schools in 2012.  What initially started as a counseling tool, the Reconciliation Ecology Program to transform ‘lives and communities through the promotion of stewardship, healthy choices and innovation in learning and educational facilities,’ has morphed into the curriculum of every classroom.  Students and teachers collaborate with scientists and UofA students to care for research gardens, a Sonoran Desert Biome, desert tortoise habitat, vegetable gardens, a small heritage fruit tree orchard, school wide composting program, aquaponics system, and active and passive rainwater harvesting systems.  It’s all part of daily life for Manzo students, and it grew organically, little by little, with the help of parents, volunteers and partners from the community, like the University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program (UACSGP) which has worked with Manzo Elementary since the fall of 2010.

Folks think verdant places like Vermont rank high as green centers but that is inaccurate.  They set a poor environmental example as the population is spread thinly but there is little mass transit.  That makes Vermont one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country.  Urban areas that are more compact may be greener, though denser.  Cities tend to consolidate and preserve landscapes and resources.  So, Manzo students may be ahead of the curve on the environmental learning spectrum.  

https://e360.yale.edu/features/greenest_place_in_the_us_its_not_where_you_think

Manzo students, kindergarten through fifth grade, have daily “farm chores” that–among other things–contribute to a harvest of over one hundred pounds of produce every year.  As Manzo is situated in what could be considered a food desert, (where healthy and affordable foods are not easy to come by) one of the goals is to introduce students to a variety of crops at a young age as well as provide the community with fresh produce.  The skills learned here influence the kind of adults they will become while getting them interested in the natural world.  That can have a lasting effect.  You remember the first time you grew a plant from an avocado pit or a potato?

“Subsequently the whole school has good vibes,” Baldwin said. “You really get the sense that the kids here are happy, and they love coming to school. I really believe that, in large part, is because the natural environment is so beautiful and stimulating, and they are involved with all of it. Nothing is off limits to them. They plant the gardens, they harvest, they weed, they water, they hangout in the greenhouse with the fish and aquaponics.”

Students help with planting seeds, watering crops, feeding fish and desert tortoises all while maintaining a butterfly garden.  That teaches responsibility; living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots.  “It’s a modeling thing,” says Andy Lenartz, a children’s health advocate and psychology professor at Gateway Community College in Phoenix. “I spend a lot of time in nature with my children, and other parents always tell me, ‘I wish my kids liked going outside and doing things.’ Well, it starts with us, the parents. If we want our kids to behave differently, we need to put our own phones down and be role models.”

Exposing elementary students to college and graduate students can enhance the “can-do” attitude that younger students absorb from their older role models.   Many of these elementary students become interested in ecology or cultivating plants and the school garden program makes math exciting (planning out crops and rows) and science plausible (how does that chicken lay an egg?).  In exchange, UofA interns develop gardening and permaculture skills, work hands-on with K-12 students and cultivate relationships in a community only a stone’s throw but sometimes a world away from the UofA. 

Manzo has consistent support from a wide variety of partners and is always looking at increasing opportunities for learning.  Keeping all the wheels turning is a challenge and consistent support for programs such as Nature’s Notebook, which tracks observable changes in plants for students to record, is a great way for volunteer naturalists or gardeners to get involved.

What can other environmental and youth centered programs learn from this?  That it takes a village, even if your task is to clean the chicken coop, it matters.  If you cannot be there, someone else must- so toss in a healthy dose of responsibility.  

Imagine your child in the grocery store asking you to purchase the kohlrabi he tasted  this week in his  school garden?  What part of the garden program do you think would have the most lasting impact on children?   Do you think there is anything we can learn from the students in their commitment to work?    

What does it mean for kids to be able to take ownership/leadership roles to work in the garden?  What else might the kids/neighborhood be getting from the garden?  

( *A study completed by market researcher Childwise in 2015 and later promoted by the National Wildlife Foundation shows that a modern child spends less than 30 minutes per day outside.)

 

Opportunities to become EE Certified and meet Certified Educators!

Arizona Environmental Education Certification Program

AAEE hosts an online Basic EE Certification Program designed to introduce you to the foundational concepts of providing quality environmental education and environmental educational programs and content. This certification, recognized by NAAEE as one of thirteen states with EE Certification Programs, has graduated 57 participants since 2015. It is a work-at-your-own pace, year long, 100-hour program in which you are paired with a certified reviewer who will help you explore how EE may be applied to the work you are doing or seek to do. 

During September’s conference there will be an opportunity to meet with EE Certified Professionals to learn more. Conference Presenters who are

certified will be recognized as such in the Conference Program. Explore the benefits of becoming an EE Certified Professional. Discuss how can we get more employers to support EE certification and seek out certified professionals for open positions?

Eager to get started on your certification? We’re taking applications for the August cohort through August 11. Cohort runs August 26, 2019 – August 23, 2020! Contact certification@arizonaee.org for more information.  

 

Learn More >>

Become Guideline Certified at the Conference & Beyond

AAEE is honored to receive a 2019 NAAEE Guidelines for Excellence Small Grant to offer two Guidelines for Excellence Workshops throughout the state. We’ll be offering one of these workshops at the 2019 Conference on Thursday, September 12 at 1pm. To register for this visit our 2019 Conference Website. Read about how the Guidelines for Excellence series began and what will be covered in the workshops.

The National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education, initiated by NAAEE in 1994, has developed a series of guidelines that set the standards for high-quality environmental education for the development of balanced, scientifically accurate, and comprehensive environmental education programs and materials. They are designed for formal, non-formal, non-traditional educators, as well as community engagement specialists.

We’ll be offering a pre-conference Guidelines for Excellence Workshop in September and others later in the year and Spring 2020 in Yuma, Bisbee, Phoenix and Pinetop-Lakeside. These workshops will help you understand how to use the NAAEE Guidelines for Excellence to help strengthen the impact of your EE programs through design and evaluation. One of our certified trainers will introduce the full series of resources and model how to evaluate and improve your programs with them. Want to know more? Email pd@arizonaee.org.

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Preparing to Build Capacity – AAEE Board Members at the 2019 ee360 NAAEE Leadership Clinic

AAEE Board of Directors at Asilomar State Beach

This June, AAEE’s Board of Directors was honored to be selected as one of ten NAAEE Affiliates to participate in the second ee360 Affiliate Leadership Clinic. Our five board members traveled to beautiful Asilomar State Park Conference Center for five days of workshops, discussions and planning sessions (plus some beach time!) all focused on helping us create an action plan for capacity building.

Together with other first-time Affiliate attendees and team members from the first ten Affiliates that participated in the 2017 Leadership Clinic, we explored transformative leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion, fundraising best practices and action planning, while networking with board members, staff and community members of the19 other Affiliates and NAAEE staff and colleagues.

ee360 Leadership Clinic participants

 

 

 

A highlight of our time with the other Affiliates was the Share Fair, an evening where each team shared their strengths and conundrums so we could all learn from and support each other. Inspired by this event, we plan to host a similar opportunity at our Conference in September.

AAEE’s booth at the Share Fair

The AAEE team was proud to share our successes with EE Certification, the re-launching our membership program, our new website and resource section, our strategic plan, strong collaborations with other organizations and the upcoming state conference. Our conundrums were very similar to other states in that we are missing a lot of voices from communities throughout our state in our conversations, and funding and people power are continually limited.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the clinic for the AAEE Board Members was to have such a concentrated amount of time to be together in the same space, getting to know each other better and most importantly, thinking deeply about EE in Arizona. For an all-volunteer organization, opportunities like these are rare and we tried to savor every moment – including the beach time.

AAEE Board bonds at the beach

Ultimately we recognized as a team that an important key to our capacity building is to make sure we are deeply listening to all EE voices in Arizona, so that everyone is included and can help shape AAEE to be what is most needed for the diversity of practitioners and audience members in our state. That includes persons of color, people of different-ability, and folks who do not necessarily consider themselves environmental educators but are doing work to educate community members about our world’s natural systems and environmental challenges. 

The more people that feel valued and can see the value of AAEE, the stronger our capacity will be. We were already on this path with our focus for the September state conference, Arizona We are EE, and have started working to strengthen our focus on inclusion at the conference and beyond.

We recieved great feedback for our conference planning

We’re so grateful for NAAEE, the US EPA and the seven other partner organizations for providing the resources to strengthen what we do in the field via the ee360 Program, with goals designed to drive excellence, be more inclusive, cultivating collective impact, and mobilizing access to high-quality resources and networks. We are also thankful for the time the NAAEE staff puts into creating these opportunities for and for doing so much to help strengthen Affiliates across the network. Keep an eye out for future updates and ongoing evidence that your AAEE Leadership Team is listening! Have a question for us or a suggestion on how we can do better? Contact LoriAnne at president@arizonaee.org

The Nature Camp Solution – Why, How, and WOW!

 

Author: Dr. Mariana Altrichter – Photographer: Peter Sherman

As an environmentalist and conservation biologist, I have been growing aware of the lack of interest among the adult population to make daily choices based on the welfare of environment. People seem to know about our pressing environmental issues, but do not translate this knowledge into behavior change. At the same time, as a mother of two young girls, I became more educated of the pervasive effects of screens and the importance of outdoor play for the overall health of children.

I realized that my girls had few opportunities to play outdoors with other kids. In our daily family excursions outdoors, I was surprised by the absence of young teens walking in the woods, biking on mountain trails, kayaking, or playing in the rocks (things that I definitely did when I was that age!). Where are they? I wondered… 

I decided to start a nature-based environmental education program in Prescott to inspire love for our natural world, love for outdoor adventures, and love for biodiversity. If these kids have fun in the woods now, I thought, in a few years from now they will be the teenagers enjoying the woods that I don’t see now; and my daughters will have a community of nature-loving friends.

Nature Camp: “All Children in the Woods” started in October 2014.  My underlying principles that permeate all activities we do in camp are respect and care for nature and each other, cooperation instead of competition, and nature is amazing. I design daily schedules based on a theme (i.e. “trees” or “monsoons” etc.) and follow a loose routine where I mix play, exploration, art, creativity, group games, songs, building, quiet solo time, journaling, and free time. I often bring a book related to the theme to read during quiet time.

 

 

We start with an opening circle where we greet each other and the woods, sing, and play big group games. Then we separate in two age groups: Bobcats 5-7 yrs old and Cougars 8-10 yrs old (although the 7 and 8 yr old kids can choose what group to join). Each group has one or two instructors, called at our camp, “coyotes”.

Each camper creates a special spot which they can decorate, build, and make personal in any way they want. I reduce the number of unnatural things I bring to camp to a minimum: shovels and buckets, toilet paper, bandannas and sometimes a rope. All other activities use only nature. We sit on the ground, eat our lunch on the ground or up in trees, go potty in the woods, play with dirt, pine needles, rocks. Thus, we spend 7 hours in the forest without hearing or seeing human infrastructure other than what we build ourselves.

The “learning” at camp often occurs organically, rather than directed, embedded in everything else. Although I create a schedule by the minute with detailed activities, I tell my “coyotes” that we have to be open to improvise or completely change course based on the children’s lead.

This is the advantage of not being tied to a curricula, or meeting standards. Just keeping the underlying principles, with basic “no hurting feelings, bodies, or nature” rules, the kids have plenty of space, time, and freedom to be creative, imaginative, and playful.

Indeed, often the most amazing, creative, and fun activities have come up spontaneously from the kids (not my detailed program!).  For example, while I was reading a book about settlers developing a town next to a river and polluting it in the process, one of the kids was fidgeting with the dirt and moving sticks and pebbles around. Although I was a little annoyed that he was “distracting the group away from my reading” I allowed him to continue and by the end of the book he said, “Look, I am building here a settlement where people and nature live together. Do you want to help me?”.

This became the most epic group building cooperative project ever! The whole day they built homes, created miniature forest among the houses, made lakes and rivers, built a “community center,” all while talking, negotiating, deciding as a group, cooperating. I was at the verge of tears the whole time, feeling, “This is it; this is magical!”

Since I started this program, we have had about 190 days in the forest and about 300 children have participated. Several of the older kids who “graduated” from camp have been coming back as helpers. They help the younger group and provide excellent role models as respectful, caring and outdoors-loving preteens.

As a college educator, I also recognize the importance of hands-on experiential education for students. Thus, I opened this camp to Prescott College students who want to participate in any way: as an independent study, for a senior projects, for a course assignments, or just for gaining experience. Many classes have done field trips with their students to visit Nature Camp. All my instructors are or were college students who became interested in working at my camp after being introduced to it in one way or another. Some of them are now elementary or college teachers, bringing to their jobs the conviction of the importance of nature-based environmental education.

To learn more about Nature Camp: All Children in the Woods or to reach Dr. Altrichter, check out Educational Expeditions’ Facebook page — Observation, internship, and volunteer opportunities are always available!

 

 

 

Growing Big Ideas in the Garden

A School Garden Story

By Ashley Fine

 Over the past decade, our staff, students, and families at Skyview School (Prescott, Arizona) have been continually expanding our school’s learning gardens. Currently, Skyview has several edible gardens throughout campus, a large native plant and pollinator garden, and an extensive rainwater harvesting system. The gardens around campus are cared for and enjoyed by students from every grade level and the staff have developed curriculum centered around these outdoor learning spaces.

While there are countless benefits to having gardens at our school, there are five main functions of our garden-centered curriculum: Education, Restoration, Sustainability, Empowerment, and Connection.

As a school, Skyview’s main purpose is clearly to educate. Our habitat garden serves as an outdoor classroom and living laboratory where students can learn about subjects across the curriculum. It is a place where students can explore science concepts such as plant and animal life cycles, weather, ecological relationships, nutrient cycles, geology, and technological innovation. The garden is also an environment in which  students learn about culture, history, native people, social justice, economics and labor. Our garden provides an opportunity for mathematics to be applied in real world scenarios. For example, the students took measurements and calculated the projected annual yield of rainwater that we can capture off our classroom roof. They collect data each school day to learn about daily changes in weather, and larger scale climate patterns. Our farm stand, in the fall, gives students the opportunity to market their goods, exchange money, and calculate the income and expenses related to their student-led business.

In addition to education, another purpose of our gardens is restoration. Just over a year ago, our habitat garden was a vacant lot filled with years of buried trash, debris, and invasive plant species. In the fall of 2017, the students from every grade level planted approximately 200 native plants, creating viable habitat for a variety of pollinator species. We are promoting the growth of wildflowers as an important food source for wildlife, and native grasses which play a critical role in the carbon cycle.

One year after planting, our students have witnessed dozens of species of butterflies, moths, birds, insects and reptiles in our garden. In September, we found loads of monarch caterpillars munching on our milkweed! Our students are getting the opportunity to transform our school neighborhood for good, and to experience, first hand, the positive impacts of ecological restoration.

Similarly, another important goal of our habitat garden is sustainability. Having numerous rain tanks in the children’s learning environment serves as a daily reminder of the importance of conservation. The students are learning about passive and active rain harvesting techniques and how to intentionally design a landscape to slow, spread, and absorb the water from the few precious rain storms we get each year. They are learning about groundwater, surface water, and captured rain, and the relationship between these water sources. Our ultimate goal with all of our rain harvesting infrastructure is to sustain our vegetable garden with captured rainwater year round and completely eliminate the need to use city supplied groundwater.

Likewise, in our edible garden, students  learn the importance of growing local food in order to reduce energy use and transportation costs. Small gardens, such as ours, eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides, all of which pose threats to human health and the environment. With changing conditions and a rapidly growing human population, natural resource literacy, and an understanding of sustainable food production, will be among the most valuable intellectual resources our children will need to carry with them into the future.

And this leads us to the next benefit of school gardens, which is empowerment. Some argue that true participatory democracy begins with participatory food production. Most people are passive consumers who simply go to the store to purchase the food they want- or the food they’ve been persuaded to want- rarely stopping to think about quality, process, impact or cost. Wouldn’t it be empowering, instead, to recognize, as Wendell Berry describes, that “the act of eating begins with planting and birth,” and is sustained by humans having a sensitive, responsive, and reciprocal relationship with plants. People with no knowledge or skills in the act and art of producing food lack the opportunity to experience true self reliance and liberty.

As Ron Finley, the gangster gardener of South Central Los Angeles states, “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. When children participate in the act of growing food and saving seeds, they start to recognize that money really does grow on trees!

And this brings us to the final benefit of our school gardens, which is connection. While this article has suggested a lot of idealistic ways our garden can be used as an educational tool and as a catalyst for change, the reality is, our students are probably not going to remember every point and detail of what is taught or discussed at school. What they will remember, though, is getting their hands muddy; holding a snail or earthworm in their palm; their surprise at pulling a giant, oddly shaped carrot out of the ground; the weight of water as they schlep a heavy watering can to their tiny sprouting seeds; and the feeling of simply being alive in a beautiful place.

In the garden, students get the chance to turn their attention away from phones and computer screens, in order to experience things that are alive and beautiful changing each day. They get to feel and appreciate the effort it takes to dig a hole in the ground, under the hot sun. They start to recognize weather as more than just a report, but rather a matter of life and death for tender living things growing in the garden.

When children get the chance to eat food that they were involved in growing, they are consuming more than just nutrients; They are feeding themselves with a story and a feeling of connection to all the resources and events that brought that fresh food to their young, curious mouths.

I had the great fortune of meeting Alice Watters at a Slow Food conference in Denver, CO in 2017. During one of her talks, she said something that really stuck with me. She explained that when children have beautiful spaces within their learning environment, “they know that they are loved without needing to be told.” They know that people who care about them took time to create a special place for them, where they can feel calm, safe, valued, and inspired.

 A colorful, fragrant garden is a place that excites the senses and the imagination, where learning can be visceral, memorable, and delicious. It is these deep-tissue learning experiences that result, later on, in responsible decision-making and stewardship. It is my hope that our gardens at Skyview School are one example of a small beginning, and that the school garden movement will continue to take hold in schools everywhere, especially in places where children would never, otherwise, get these kinds of learning experiences and opportunities.

Education, Restoration, Sustainability, Empowerment, and Connection are among the most important things we should be growing and cultivating in our schools, and gardens are the best place to dig in!

Ashley presenting on school garden programming during a Prescott College professional development institute

Have a school garden story to share? Comment and let us know!

Also, stay tuned for more on: School Gardening in Arizona (our climate brings unique challenges and opportunities!), The Dirt on Green Schoolyards (a growing national movement & why!), Planting Standards (state standards, NGSS, and the EE Guidelines are easy in the garden!) and more.

Is that even STEM?! Early EE & Nature Play

Before the buckets of sticks, branch cross-cuts, rocks, shells, moss, and more were even unpacked the children tiptoed in. As if drawn by an unseen magnetic force, tiny hands reached for the sticks, “tree cookies”, and shells, and we heard the excited question again and again and again, “Are these real?!

Earlier in the month AAEE teamed up with the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education to host an early childhood environmental education & STEM space at the Children’s Learning & Play Festival in Scottsdale. We shared the space with many great organizations, including the lead organizer, The Museum of Science and Sustainability (MoSS). We loaded up a truck with nature’s loose parts of all kinds, some paints and brushes, and a whole bunch of enthusiasm. 400+ children, 300+ tree cookies, a couple gallons of paint, and 7 hours of laughter later, we realized parents and early childhood educators alike deeply agree: we need more nature play.

 

But why nature play?

Why tree cookies?

Is that even STEM?

Is that even EE?

We’re glad you asked!

 

 

 

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and is a concept stemming (ha!) from a nationwide push to increase proficiency in these subjects through integrative and innovative approaches. Increasingly, environmental education is seen as one of the best approaches to achieving STEM goals in the United States. STEM for older children can be anything from water quality monitoring to building solar panels. However, STEM & EE in the early years look very different.

At AAEE we always promote developmentally appropriate practice, which is educational practice based on research about how young children learn and develop. Developmentally appropriate early EE & STEM may take the shape of open-ended and inquiry-based explorations or simply playing in and with nature. This might be creating towers or fairy worlds with loose parts, building forts, decorating story stones, making mud soup, watching bugs, or caring for a garden. These simple practices give young children the opportunity to ask questions, test hypothesis, discover the fundamentals of disciplines such as physics or ecology, build early literacy and numeracy skills, and so much more.

Early EE and nature-based STEM learning can also combat the growing concerns about Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). NDD is not a medical term, but a useful phrase to describe the effects we experience from our increasing disconnect with the natural world, including decreased use of the senses, attention issues, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and indifference towards the natural world.

Play in and with nature is an easy remedy and there are many resources to help parents and educators make a real difference in their children’s lives. For starters, check out AAEE’s Early Childhood Environmental Education resource page, download a free copy of the NAAEE Early Childhood EE Guidelines for Excellence, or visit the website our national early EE partner the Natural Start Alliance.

You can also stay tuned to our blog and subscribe to our newsletter! In response to the growing field of early childhood EE, early STEM, nature play, nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens, and more, AAEE will be partnering with the Natural Start Alliance to increase advocacy and resources for the field here in Arizona. Look for upcoming blogs on topics such as What is Early Childhood EE? Nature Play & the latest research on Nature-based Learning, Nature Play in the Indoor Classroom, Nature Play in the Desert, and more!

 

If you want to join the conversation and help us advocate for early EE and nature play in Arizona  comment and let us know or follow us on Facebook; we love hearing from you!