Tuckahoe Elementary hosted the February 2016 Arlington Public Schools (APS) School Garden Meetup with a presentation on bringing the outdoors into the classroom and winterizing an outdoor education program followed by a guided tour of the school’s award-winning Discovery Schoolyard.
APS parents have been organizing monthly School Garden Meetups since June 2015 as a way to continue the momentum of the April 2015 Growing Green Schools event and to provide parents and teachers opportunities to share and learn from one another. The discussion and tour of Tuckahoe inspired lots of ideas and enthusiasm.
The presentation was hosted by fourth grade teacher Ms. Kathy Payne and was organized by STEAM. teacher and Outdoor Learning Coordinator Margaret Egan.
Tuckahoe’s Discovery Schoolyard Program grew out of the vision and efforts of the wider school community to integrate outdoor-based learning through the curricula. In 2004, the Outdoor Classroom was designated as an Exemplary Project by APS and as such is supported by a staff position, Outdoor Learning Coordinator, currently held by Margaret Egan. Her main focus is on facilitating educational uses of the schoolyard in a variety of ways, including support for teachers and direct class instruction. Another aspect to her position is developing and conducting lessons connecting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, & math) to outdoor learning.
Last year all classes cycled through working with Ms. Egan, scheduled like art, music and other specials. This year, she is working a “Schoolyard Stewards” program. Each Monday, three groups of 10 students students at a time discuss nature-related topics during lunch and then go outside to perform yard chores, taste foods that are growing and otherwise engage with the Discovery Gardens.
At the meeting, which included parents, children and teachers from APS, Alexandria’s school garden coordinator, and a representative from Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), Margaret shared these Easy Tips for Bringing Nature into the Classroom:
- put up nature posters (e.g. tree or bird ID)
- have field guides available
- assign optional HW such as ‘notice the clouds’
- use nature-based concept for things you do anyway (e.g. writing prompt, read aloud, class discussion)
keep an eye out for kid-friendly nature based resources online and bookmark them for easy access. Use as enriching fillers, such as at the end of the day. One favorite: Cornell Lab Feederwatch
- plan ahead by saving materials in the fall for winter use (e.g. flower heads with seeds inside, pressed leaves – can be laminated – for leaf rubbings, dried grasses)
- bring in a veggie or fruit for students to taste (e.g. jicama, canned sliced beets, parsley, a cucumber, freeze dried strawberries…) Notice the structure (seeds, layers…), discuss where the food grows, which animals would eat it, and how it tastes!
- have nature-themed coloring pages, puzzles, or games (e.g. Bird Bingo) available
- bring nature observations into conversation (I noticed an interesting bird this morning. Did anyone notice that the moon was out this morning…)
- pick an animal for the day by flipping pages in a field guide and having a student randomly stick a finger in a page. Students like to play this in pairs too.
- research extremes (biggest bug, smallest fish, fastest bird, tallest tree, oldest animal…)
- force a bulb in winter
- model respect for living things – Have a classroom bug cup and/or bug net for rescuing bugs (For flying bugs, stay calm, turn off all lights, open a window, and wait – they usually take a moment to orient then head for the brightest light and go out.
The back of the school building has a log cabin and a large mural of the Piedmont region of Virginia, which was drawn by Tuckahoe teachers and painted by Yorktown High School students. This section of the schoolyard includes a “Colonial Village.” The school has a Colonial Day every year.
The side of the building is quite long and juts up against a residential neighborhood. Here there is a gazebo, picnic tables and other seating areas amid expanses of grass, a greenhouse, a butterfly garden, a Peter Rabbit garden, and more classroom garden beds.
Tuckahoe is in a unique position with its focus on outdoor learning. Tuckahoe also has a PTA-funded part-time Schoolyard Assistant position, currently held by Andrea Kaplowitz, who brings expertise in gardening and landscaping that is vital for maintaining and improving the outdoor classrooms. Community support is essential to the schoolyard program, and Ms. Egan and Ms. Kaplowitz promote volunteer opportunities, including several garden workdays, weekly (in spring and fall) student Schoolyard Stewards projects, and support Boy Scout and Girl Scout projects in the schoolyard.
APS School Garden Meetups have taken place this winter/spring at the Career Center greenhouse and at Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s Community Garden and in the fall of 2015 at Campbell, Patrick Henry and Abingdon Elementary Schools. The first APS School Garden Meetup took place in June 2015 at Jamestown Elementary.
Note: Some links in this article and other elements were updated in April 2018 upon the scheduling of the April 12, 2018 NoVA Outside School Garden Meetup at Tuckahoe Elementary.
Jessica Claire Haney is the founder, publisher and editor of Mindful Healthy Life. She is a writer and editor and the founder of the Arlington/Alexandria chapter of Holistic Moms Network. Her personal blog is Crunchy-Chewy Mama and her writer’s site is JessicaClaireHaney.com. See Jessica’s Mindful Healthy Life Q&A for more on Jessica.