HIGHLANDS – Just outside the front doors of Highlands Elementary School, parents are greeted by more than their children at the end of each day.
As kids bustle out of the kindergarten through sixth grade school, their parents have the opportunity to explore the spring semester project: The Osprey Nest, an outdoor learning garden appropriately named after the school’s mascot.
The recently crafted outdoor learning garden, used by teachers, students and volunteers, has garnered significant attention in the Highlands community, and has brought a tight-knit school even closer together.
Nancy Burton, an alumna of Highlands Elementary School and Henry Hudson Regional School, got the idea for an outdoor learning garden. Burton, a graduate of The New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture, is one of three owners of In the Garden, a local business that caters to the floral and garden needs of the Highlands. She also has two children, ages 5 and 2, who will attend the Highlands’ schools.
Burton’s love for the Highlands and its education system, combined with her expertise in horticulture, motivated her to apply for the Whole Foods School Garden Grant Program. With help from Hope Hanlon and Laurie Brekke, the founders of www.GoSprouts.org, a local garden education program for children, Burton applied for and was awarded a $2,000 grant for HES.
“The idea of having an outdoor classroom is something that children don’t have at home,” Burton said. “Everybody is so busy, and with working parents, a lot of children don’t have the opportunity to actually garden.”
The school garden has several individual raised wooden garden beds that are long and rectangular with some smaller, square beds mixed in.
The garden has been a way for the teachers to use the school grounds as a classroom, allow students to reconnect with the natural world and apply skills, ranging from math to creative writing, in a unique environment.
“In the world now with all the electronics, they’re so out of touch with dirt, fresh air and plants,” Burton said. “The teachers are going to take their lessons and bring them out here into the fresh air and incorporate their classroom lessons into the garden.”
Jennifer McCormick, a second-grade teacher, echoed Burton’s words, agreeing that the space has provided great lessons. “The best part about it is the hands-on aspect,” McCormick said. “It really encourages them to look into a little bit more about each subject area, on top of what we’re teaching them in the room.”
Her class, full of smiling and excited 7- and 8-year olds, ventured into the garden for a lesson in creative writing last week. Seated on small stools underneath a big tree, McCormick’s students learned the basics of proper garden etiquette, and were then split into groups to observe what they saw growing.
As they roamed the garden, the children were encouraged to cautiously check out the tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, potatoes and other plants. They noted plants growth, created drawings and wrote about what they found.
“I like to come out and see the plants,” said Aya El-Sawa, 8, as she finished her assignment.
A class highlight was a release of ladybugs into the garden. The ladybugs flew about the plants, landing on eager students, like Greyson Fair, 8, who was especially excited as the small bugs crawled across his glasses and along his arm. Other students shared his enthusiasm, handling the ladybugs with care while counting their black spots and observing their movements.
The garden has brought endless possibilities to teachers who have used the garden setting for lessons in all subjects. Classes measured area and perimeter of the beds, others calculated averages of specific plants’ growth over a period of several weeks.
A fourth-grade class, that had just learned about New Jersey’s state bird, the goldfinch, saw one in the garden. Another class saw a turkey vulture land on a nearby lamppost, prompting much excitement and a lesson about the raptor family and carnivorous eating habits.
Kelly Diebold, mother of a son in kindergarten, has seen the opportunity the garden has resulted in for students at school and home. “They get to see something they really made,” she said. “I feel like it gives them a respect for nature, and gives them a chance to do something aside from the computer.”
The garden was begun with teachers and students planting seeds in soil in classrooms before transferring them to the Osprey Nest in the spring.
According to Burton, an added bonus has been that students who have participated also have increased their fruit and vegetable intake by 2 1/2 percent. “Just by gardening with an adult, you teach them about healthy eating,” she said.
As the school year ended Wednesday, June 25, Burton was hoping families adopt a week in the garden during which they would water and pick ripe produce. She and volunteers plan to give foods grown at the school to the local food pantry.
The key to the garden’s continuation for years to come will be finding funding for garden maintenance, upkeep and new plants when needed.
Someday, Burton would like to have enough funding to irrigate the garden and the entire school, a project that would cost nearly $4,500.
“School gardens as a whole are on the rise, and there is so much funding out there for it, grant-wise,” Burton said. “It is a big undertaking, as it has taken a lot of (volunteer) hours, but it is so worth it when you see the kids, teachers and parents. They really love it.”