“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
When we learned that St. Francis Episcopal Day School just dedicated a new outdoor classroom and garden, we knew we had found a great topic for the Parker Blog. After all, when you think about what makes a healthy learning environment for kids, what better place to start than outdoors. Located on 15 acres in the Houston community of Piney Point Village, St. Francis is an 820-student private school serving ages 2 years through 8th grade. What we found in “The Woods,” the Thoreau-inspired name that St. Francis has given their outdoor space, is much more than an outdoor garden. It is a classroom, a home for butterflies, a tree house, an art gallery, a worship center, and more. Before we get too far into the details, we should go back to the beginning.
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike made its mark on the city of Houston. An hour inland, St. Francis suffered some roof damage to the school and lost 13 large trees, mostly in an area that the school used for recreation purposes and overflow parking. As the school began the process of fixing the damage, staff members Debbie Harris and Carol Lee Nicosia began to envision creating an outdoor space that would do more than just replace the lost trees.
Harris, the school’s Science Department Head and 7th Grade teacher and Nicosia, a Primary School teacher who holds a degree in Parks and Wildlife Management, successfully co-wrote and applied for a British Petroleum “A+ for Energy” grant. The grant enabled St. Francis to design an outdoor classroom and gardening area for the school. The school then approached private donors to cover the cost of bringing the plan to life.
Harris recently gave us a wonderful tour of the Woods, and we found her excitement to be infectious. Harris explained that she and Nicosia looked to The Arbor Day Foundation for the garden’s inspiration. The Arbor Day Foundation has developed a program it calls Nature Explore that encourages schools to develop outdoor learning spaces for their students. The program is relatively new, with only about 60 schools nation-wide receiving certification from the program.
The Arbor Day Foundation website, www.arborday.org/explore, explains that they developed the Nature Explore program because “Educators and mental health professionals world-wide are becoming concerned that many of today’s children are no longer able to spend unhurried hours exploring the natural world in the same ways that previous generations enjoyed. Research is showing that children need connections with the natural world as a regular part of their healthy growth and development.” With that in mind, the program requires that schools meet three requirements in order to receive certification.
First, the school must show that it has created a well-designed outdoor space. St. Francis has met this requirement and then some. Dedicated on March 11 of this year, The Woods is made up of 90% native Texas plants and multiple areas with unique purposes. Some of the areas include the Awakening, which is a butterfly garden that is already a favorite spot for students on the hunt for caterpillars; the Treehouse, which is a free play area and quiet space; the Dig, a sandy area used for a variety of curriculum; and The Living Earth, which is an area for growing vegetables and herbs. The Woods also includes an outdoor art area, music area, and other learning spaces.
In addition to class time, Harris is excited about the opportunities the outdoor space will provide for students’ personal growth. The school designed an area it calls Gods Drop into the garden. Students use this area for outdoor prayer and quiet times. Students can “drop” a rock or stone in front of the cross that marks the area after they have said their prayers. Harris also envisions using the Woods to serve others. The school already organizes canned food drives each year. Harris would like to grow enough fresh produce in the garden so that the students can donate fresh fruits and vegetables along with the canned goods.
The Arbor Day Foundation also requires that schools show evidence of staff development as it relates to nature education. Teachers in the St. Francis science department have already used the outdoor space as a backdrop for studying the life cycle of caterpillars and butterflies, meteorology, and plant life. Harris is now working in coordination with other departments to develop additional, non-science curriculum. For example, she would like to bury “treasure” somewhere in the Dig and use it as a fun way for the students to learn about map coordinates. Tree cookies, or the very base of the trees that have been lost from the hurricane or other causes, provide fun stepping-stones for students and a great opportunity to study circumference and other geometric concepts.
Finally, the Nature Explore program requires that not just students but also their families get involved. St. Francis is still working on this final component. Within the upcoming months, Harris plans to create a volunteer calendar so that one or more St. Francis families will adopt a month during the school year and then plan and implement an outside activity for the students and their families.
The entire team at St. Francis has done a terrific job fulfilling the goals of the Nature Explore program. They have created many beautiful ways for their students to explore, learn and make connections with the natural world. After spending an hour with Harris in The Woods, we felt excited for the students and faculty at St. Francis and motivated to spread the word about the program.
If you are interested in implementing a similar program at your school or would just like to learn more about The Arbor Day Foundation, please visit their website at www.arborday.org. If you would like more information about St. Francis Episcopal Day School, you may visit their website at http://www.sfedshouston.org. We do have one request. Once you have read up on St. Francis and the Nature Explore Program, please turn off your computer. If the visit to The Woods taught us anything, it is that we need to spend less time looking at TVs and computer screens and more time outside enjoying nature. Now go play.