Healthy Gardens, Healthy Schools
What can one teacher and a lot of elementary school students do with a big idea and a bunch of dirt? A lot, as it turns out. This inspiring story comes from Christine Comas, an elementary school science teacher at Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington, Maryland.
As part of a summer Mobile Learning Institute, Smithsonian Gardens, the National Arboretum, and the U.S. Botanic Garden collaborated with EdLab at the Postal Museum on a week-long workshop for teachers on how to integrate mission-based learning into their curriculum. The teachers spent the week completing various missions related to the role of gardens in shaping healthy communities and sharing their findings using a variety of technology platforms.
One teacher, Christine Comas, took the assignment a step further. She decided that when she returned to school in the fall, she would challenge her students to design a garden that would improve the health of their school and their community. Last year the entire school studied the Chesapeake Bay. When Comas asked her students how they would like to help save the bay, her students responded that they wanted to create habitats for animals, keep water clean and make the school beautiful. These three powerful ideas became the guiding principles of the school rain garden.
Comas and her classes collaborated with Kara Crissey from Good Earth Gardeners, who provided her expertise with plant selection. All of the plants in the garden are native to the area. Explains Comas, “We chose plants that would provide habitats for birds, butterflies and other insects, that could withstand influxes of water, salt, and pollution, and that could handle pooling of water around the plant’s base. These plants along with the rain garden structure are designed to slow down the storm water runoff and assist in the percolation of the water.”
Not only does the garden provide a beautiful setting for outdoor learning, it prevents runoff into nearby Rock Creek. Every student, from preschoolers to fifth graders, had a chance to participate in the planting. They were eager to get their hands dirty while learning about the effects of rainwater runoff on the bay. For those less in-the-know than the students, signage educates the community at large about the botanical information and the positive effects of the rain garden.
Comas reflects, “I learned from the workshop that student input and ideas should be the catalyst to environmental education projects at schools. The students become deeply invested in their work. The project then becomes more meaningful, satisfying and successful. Years from now, after they have graduated, we hope that they will return and point to the garden and note that they were a part of the solution. It is my hope that they will educate others in the community on the importance of caring for the local and global environment. Together we can make a huge impact.”
Next up? This spring the third graders will be designing and planting a native vegetable garden.
Some of the plants in the garden:
Light Blue Aster
Shenandoah Switch Grass
Purple Woods Aster
Eastern Red Cedar
Sweet Bay Magnolia
Pinot Noir Hibiscus
Blue Flag Iris
You can read more about the rain garden and see pictures of the installation process here.
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator