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Learning Blooms in Wolftrap Gardens

Elementary school students create outdoor classrooms.

As more research emerges about the possible dangers of global climate changes, students at Wolftrap Elementary School are learning about the environment that surrounds their school. While some of the learning is conducted inside the walls of a classroom, the students have begun constructing garden classrooms where they observe nature around them.

"Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom," said Wolftrap Principal Anita Blain. "Making a connection to real life is so important," she said.

Blain said the students at Wolftrap are a part of the generation that will play an important role in determining the environmental direction of the planet. She said the lessons they learn in the gardens would empower them, because they will learn that the environment is their future. The outdoor learning teaches the students to take ownership of their environment. "They should learn to embrace it and protect it and not be scared of it," said Blain. "You have a hand in what your future will look like," she said.

A part of the outdoor experience at Wolftrap is a bluebird trail, which requires the students to collect data on what types of birds are attempting to settle into a number of birdhouses built on the trail. The students share the collected data with the Northern Virginia Bluebird Society and Cornell University. "They do research on-line on different types of nests and different species of birds," said Jill Clopton, a teacher for the gifted and talented students at Wolftrap. Clopton said the students are always excited to work on their project. The students who did not leave town during last week’s spring break came to the school to check on the birdhouses, she said.

THE TEACHERS, TOO, are excited about the gardens. Fourth grade teacher Eric Triche was one of the project leaders when students planted a vegetable garden last fall. They planted radishes, which they then harvested and served at a party. "Why not make it real for the kids," said Triche. "It’s real life for them."

Blain said the observations made in the gardens become reading lessons and writing lessons. The second graders observed the behavior of Sir Eats-A-Lot, a squirrel that took kindly to a feeder planted outside of their classroom window. They wrote stories about his life and habits. "It’s not a distraction [to learning], it’s an add on," said Blain. She said the gardens provide for spontaneous learning, which is something the students may remember better than some planned lessons. The challenge for the teachers, she said, is to find the balance to integrate outdoor learning with the learning mandated by the state’s standards of learning.

The staff and the students at Wolftrap are not the only ones who are excited about the garden classrooms. The general community has assumed an active role in helping the school realize its vision for its outdoor space. "People, especially if they have kids, want to be a part of the solution" to the global climate changes, said Elizabeth Burke, a parent of a Wolftrap student and an environmental educator. She said local companies have provided materials and labor to help create the gardens, while some local environmental and landscaping experts have helped the students plant the gardens.

Burke said students are disadvantaged when they are not connected to the outdoors. Lessons learned outside can enhance the lessons learned inside. "They can learn by seeing things in natural environments," said Burke. She said that the gardens are also an example to many local parents who think they have to take their children on trips in order to show them natural habitats. "There is so much the parents can do in their own backyard," said Burke.

Blain said Wolftrap is not the first school to have outdoor lessons and to teach students to observe their environment in gardens. "We’re not the first, but we certainly hope we’re not the last," said Blain. She said the completion of the garden vision would take years, but that she is very happy with how much had been accomplished in the first year.