Lessons harvested in the learning gardens

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Students in Alexandria have an option when it comes to science, character development, art and writing lessons, thanks to the advent of the learning gardens. The gardens act as a hands-on lab for many of the lessons that are part of the standards of learning, as well as some that arent.

We specifically designed them for learning purposes, said Wendy Sparrow, the Alexandria Public Schools habitat coordinator. We try to incorporate as many parts of the curriculum as possible, she added.

At James K. Polk Elementary School for example, there are two gardens, the natural habitat garden and the butterfly/produce garden. The kindergarten and first grade students learn about the stages of the butterfly, plant parts, vegetables and good eating habits at one garden, while the third graders learn about the seasons and animals. There are a few benches out there so students can read as well.

Third grade teacher John Curran takes his class out to the garden as much as possible. It was good for when were studying different habitats, he said. His students also went out to the garden and practiced descriptive writing and plant life cycles. Curran even sits out there and grades papers sometimes.

At the other garden at Polk, Erin Joys first graders go outdoors to learn about the different plant parts, and then go to the natural habitat to study the pond and fish. Its like a living lab, they love it, she said. Joy even rewards her students as part of the Green Apple Club, a merit system in class to recognize achievements. We have lunch and look for the turtles, the fish. We get to feed them, she said.

For the senses
Christine Matthews is a parent and co-chair on the Barrett Elementary Garden Committee with Pamela Underhill. At Barrett, they have a senses garden, where students explore taste, smell, touch and sight, as well as the butterfly and vegetable garden. Its a wonderful supplement to the classroom, Matthews said. The second graders at Barrett participate in Journey North, a program where they track the growth of tulip bulbs with students around the country, via the internet.

Matthewss daughter Grace is in first grade and enjoys the garden as well. Im a big believer in natural education. I want my daughter to experience hands-on learning, Matthews said.

The first garden at the city schools was at Cora Kelly Elementary School 11 years ago. Sparrow started as a volunteer, creating that garden and has taken a full time position with ACPS as the coordinator following the success at Cora Kelly.

A lot of children live in apartments and townhouses, they dont have yards. It was an opportunity for kids to get out and learn in a hands-on environment, Sparrow said.

Macarthur, George Mason, and Maury Elementary Schools created gardens just last year, Lyles-Crouch and Barretts gardens are two years old and Ramsey has a garden that started back in the 2000-2001 time frame. Jefferson Houston Elementary School just started their garden last month, and Tucker and Patrick Henry Elementary Schools dont have gardens at all. A parent volunteer from those schools is hard to find, said Sparrow.

The gardens receive minimal funding from the Alexandria Public School System, and depend heavily on parental volunteers and garden groups. Polk, for example, relies on the Red Hill Garden Club and the Hunting Creek Garden Club for support. Without the financial help, we wouldnt have been able to do it, said Sparrow. The Retired Senior Volunteers in Alexandria helped out at Polk as well. Parent volunteers perform maintenance functions at the gardens throughout the year.

At Barrett, there are no garden groups helping out. Ours is entirely parent driven, said Matthews. Id say every week, Im there for a couple of hours, she added. On earth day this year, the students helped out as well, weeding and maintaining the plants.

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