3rd grade students visiting HPEC wetland demonstration garden.
Since Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books) was published in 2005 there has been an ever-increasing focus on getting students of all ages connected with their natural surroundings. High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) in Loveland has been working closely with local schools in the Thompson School District over the last six years to promote nature-based learning. This movement toward building outdoor classrooms and nature playscapes has been literally grassroots almost always originating with a small and inspired group of parents and teachers. On a muddy day in January, I set out to interview some of the individuals whose passion has breathed life into these projects.
Big Thompson Elementary
At Big Thompson Elementary School, I spoke with Christa Ahrens and Kerri Rollins, both parents of children who attend the school. In 2009, Big T staff decided to pursue a nature and science designation for the school. Because many of the teachers had already pursued additional training in environmental education, the designation was a natural fit for what was already being incorporated into the classroom. The staff was inspired to make additional curriculum changes necessary to meet this new vision. Great things were happening inside of the school including the conversion of an unused classroom into an interactive science lab, and they wanted to turn their attention to the outdoor space around the school.
The next step was to have a contest to “design your dream playground”. Students and their families participated and presented some very creative ideas. The school received more than 40 proposals and spent over a year sorting through them to come up with a design that integrated the best concepts.
The resulting design for the nature playscape at Big T has a hydrological flume that demonstrates erosion and sedimentation, a climbing wall that depicts ecosystems at different altitudes and animal adaptation for various life zones, an embankment slide where students can learn about gravity and balance, and a bio-swale where native plants will purify water that runs off of the playground before it returns to the river.
There are many sustainably built features of the playground including a recycled rubber tire surface for the play yard and an artificial turf ball field. The flume construction was funded primarily by a grant from Pulliam Charitable Trust. The school also received grants from Great Outdoors Colorado and New Belgium Brewing to complete the half-million dollar playground renovation.
Plants for the bio-swale, which are being donated by High Plains Environmental Center, include native grasses such as; Big Bluestem – Andropogon gerardii, Switch Grass – Panicum virgatum, Yellow Indian Grass – Sorghastrum nutans, and Little Blue Stem - Schizachyrium scoparium. Flowering plants that attract pollinators Blue Vervain – Verbena hastata, Swamp Milkweed – Asclepias incarnata, Nuttall’s Sunflower – Helianthus nuttallii, will be included as well.
The use of native plants can run into some unforeseen restrictions in gardens at elementary schools. The school district avoids toxic plants for obvious reasons. HPEC has created a list cross referencing the Colorado Native Plant Society (CONPS) list of native plants with information on toxicity. At Big T they also had to avoid plants that have edible fruit because of the abundance of bears where the school is located.
Outdoor classroom at Big Thompson Elementary
Aside from the nature playscape, there is a 4 acre outdoor classroom adjacent to the school. Teachers at Big T invite other schools to attend field trips on-site and Big T students conduct the tours, giving presentations on soils, geology, plants and pollination.
Lisa Coalwell, a Big T teacher, says the school has a STEM curriculum (science, technology engineering and math) which is taught in the outdoor classroom. Working cooperatively, students measure and identify natural processes as fast or slow. Recent natural events in the area, floods and fires, have provided vivid examples of fast processes. Weathering and erosion of the adjacent foothills demonstrate slower processes.
The outdoor classroom is also a place where students follow compass coordinates during treasure hunts to find native plants, identify them, and read about the ways that Native Americans use them for food and medicine.
Jim Cooper, another teacher at Big T spoke with great eloquence and passion about the outdoor classroom as the place where students spend solo time working on descriptive writing and journaling, “They produce really beautiful things over there that they wouldn’t in the classroom” he said.
A number of groups in the community have utilized the outdoor classroom for various programs including poetry, writing, and art. Rocky Mountain National Park has offered community outreach programs there. The Northern chapter of CONPS will offer a tour of this remarkably diverse site this summer with the intention of organizing a plant inventory for the school
Michele Mandeville’s passion for the wild began in early childhood when she played outdoors and learned about wildlife and nature. As an adult, her connection to nature was rekindled when, after a personal tragedy, it was the place that she went to for solace and healing. She wanted her own children to have access to the restorative and sustaining quality of nature.
Michele volunteered to organize and lead trips to nearby natural areas, such as Bobcat Ridge, while being an active parent during her children’s preschool years. She enjoyed seeing the spark of curiosity that it ignited in the kids. She commented about how simple it is to get kids connected with nature “just by going outside, noticing small things, bird calls, the color of a flower, and letting them lose themselves in the environment a little bit.”
This led to Michele starting an outdoor club, Namaqua Outdoors, at her children’s school, Namaqua Elementary.
The Namaqua Outdoors program led to the desire to build an outdoor classroom at the school. The funding for the garden comes primarily from within the school community. The school principal, Donald Beuke, teachers, and parent committee are all very supportive and have committed funds to the project.
The outdoor classroom will have native shrubs, grasses and flowers encircling a seating area beneath a large old cottonwood that will provide dappled shade. Ironically, the spot where the outdoor classroom is being built was covered by
Pollinator gardens help to teach about real-world applications of science and provide students with a sense of place.
rabbitbrush and native plants until a decade or so ago when parents raised money to turn it into a “nice” irrigated turf area. Fortunately the trend is now going in the opposite direction and we have an opportunity to restore Colorado’s unique native bio-diversity in schools.
Activities in the outdoor classroom will include having students adopt a shrub or tree for a year and track its seasonal changes. Kids will be able to measure the influx of birds and butterflies that visit when the native garden is done, track them, learn about them and write about them.
A native of the Eastern US, Michele has come to appreciate Colorado landscapes in winter and the way that grasses and plants dry and remain in place so beautifully. “You don’t have that back East,” she said “everything dies down in the winter.”
When asked what she hopes students will gain from the outdoor classroom, Michele said, “a sense of place, a connection to where they grew up, where they went to school, and to the native plants that sustain life.”
Stacee Kersley, A Loveland based architect, was disgusted by the way the stormwater pond looked at her daughters school, Centennial Elementary. It was a mud-pit and the neighbors were concerned about the standing water in the pond.
Stacee worked with, Jim Birdsall, a landscape architect to develop a concept for landscape improvements. The concept was presented at a PTA meeting, the group decided to pursue it and dedicated fundraising proceeds to the project.
Cara Scohy, CS Design, Inc. a landscape architect donated a detailed landscape plan. As the concept evolved the custodial staff were consulted to make sure the plan didn’t go beyond their means to maintain it.
What would a child’s world look like if she were to design it herself?
The vision for the project is much more than beautification; it will be a literal classroom with stones for seating and a focus on local ecology, native plants and their relationships with pollinating insects and birds, as well as water conservation and watershed protection.
In the past the school has focused their funding primarily on technology and the kid’s only exposure to the outdoors was a short recess break which was not very interactive with the environment. The new school principal, Kim Tymkowych, is very proactive about seeing the project through to completion.
A partnership is being pursued with the Loveland Garden Club to build support for the garden. A Mother’s Day plant sale will provide funding and in the future people will be able to donate specific plants to the project. A neighbor who frequently walked by school heard about the project and also made a substantial donation.
Stacee talked about the special quality of engaging community volunteers for projects like this “it has to be mutually beneficial” she said. Planting by volunteers is a personal investment in the project. She recalled how, on one wet June day, the former Superintendent of the School District was out wearing fancy dress shoes and planting trees in the mud along with a group of bedraggled students and their families. Twenty years down the road those students will be able to come back with their kids and say “look how it’s grown” and that builds a very personal connection.
The Pollinator Game
Connie and Eric test out equipment for the “pollinator game”
In November of 2013 Connie Gray, who is the President of the Northern Chapter of Colorado Native Plant Society, as well as the Education and Outreach Manager at HPEC, led HPEC staff and nearly 400 students at Cottonwood Plains Elementary School in a pollinator game.
- Bees are the active participants in the game. They wear goggles, antennae and felt vests which they use to carry pollen from the stamens of one flower to the pistils of another. In a more elaborate version of the game the bees would sip juice from the flowers through a straw but things get messy and complicated quickly in a large group of kids
- Pollen is provided in the form of small balls covered in Velcro which easily stick and unsticks to the other game pieces.
- Petals for a red flower and a blue flower are made of heavy construction board and are held up by the students to form a flower.
- Stamens are created by students pulling socks over their hands and holding their hands up with pollen sticking to them.
- Pistils sit in the center of the petals wearing a wool caps. The bees detach the pollen from their felt vest and stick it on the pistils when they come to get the nectar.
- Playing the pollinator game
The HPEC staff were bemused by the fact that the biggest boys shot their hands up when we said “who wants to be the pistils?” Presumably they thought some type of sidearm was involved. Little did they know that they were signing up to represent the essence of the feminine. Altogether the game is amusing and chaotic. It demonstrates pollination in way that is fun and easy to understand. Discussions about conserving native bio-diversity flow easily after participating in this exercise.