Fourth/fifth-grade teacher Ms. Aziza Malik has long devoted her professional career to outdoor education. Recently she has shared many learning opportunities with her colleagues to increase the use of Champlain’s campus for environmental education and other uses of the great outdoors. Here Ms. Malik described our school facilities that engage students and adults alike in the natural world.
Principal Dorrine Dorfman (DD): What are the outdoor education activities planned for Champlain students this fall? What are the outdoor spaces that we have on our campus?
Aziza Malik (AZ): We have several places where students learn outdoors at Champlain. We have the fresh garden, the pumpkin patch, blueberry terrace, the apple orchard, the sensory garden, our forest trail, and the Pat Fitzgerald Memorial Book Garden.
Located on the southeast corner of Champlain’s playground is the Fresh Garden, where the bulk of our produce is grown. The Fresh Garden started as a parent initiative to encourage students to eat local produce and experience growing food. After those parents moved onto middle school, the garden became underutilized and overgrown. In 2015 a group of teachers and parents attended the Farm-to-School Institute at Shelburne Farms. At this institute, we developed an action plan with a mission of: “Fostering an inclusive community through place based learning where students utilize the schoolyard for hands-on food production and natural discovery.” In this plan we identified barriers preventing teachers from using the garden and worked to eliminate those. Since the creation of the outdoor committee, the Fresh Garden has bounced back and is one of our most used outdoor spaces.
One key to the success of the Fresh Garden is that we involve what we call the 3 C’s: Classroom, Cafeteria, and Community. Classrooms go outside and connect the curriculum to the garden; our cafeteria uses all the produce we grow; and our community volunteers ensure we have the power to pull it all off. We are so fortunate at Champlain to have Chef Kaye Douglas who will cook anything we harvest. One recent morning Chef Kaye showed up in my classroom to recruit a group to pick swiss chard from the garden that she then served that afternoon at lunch! In addition, she also participates in the Vermont Harvest of the Month program, where twice a month she cooks a featured local crop with a class. Their creation is served to the whole school in a taste test during lunch time and often is incorporated into future lunch menus.
An exciting new development this year is that a representative from the Burlington School Food Project and National Gardening Association, Christine Gall, comes to Champlain every Friday to work in the garden or cook with teachers. We use our mobile cooking Charlie Cart to create recipes using produce straight from our garden. So far, every slot of her time has been filled, which means almost every classroom is getting out to the garden!
In addition to the Fresh Garden, we have the Pumpkin Patch and the Apple Orchard, which were both created in 2016 by a group of UVM Design Build students supervised by outdoor committee member and parent volunteer Sara Brown. Both of these areas were specifically developed based on a survey of teachers to determine crops they most wanted to add to our campus. The Blueberry Terrace was newly donated by Adam’s Berry Farm, and installed by parent volunteers.
Located right next to the back doors is the Sensory Garden. This garden was inspired by outdoor committee member Kerrie Mathes’ visit to the Sustainability Academy gardens. This area teaches students to use their senses and learn to recognize herbs. Favorites include Stevia (sweet!) and Lamb’s Ears (soft!).
The Pat Fitzgerald Memorial Book Garden was devoted to a retired teacher who recently passed away. The donation allowed us to hire a landscape architect and shape it into a really nice outdoor space for kids to read. We bought the text series, Books in Bloom, by St. Michael’s College professor Valerie Bang-Jensen, which can borrowed from our school library.
Our Forest Trail runs from Charbonneau Field and exits near the swings at the top of the hill. A parent group led the charge in the initial development of the trail many years ago. For a time the forest trail was no longer used, but Champlain’s outdoor committee decided to work on it. An anonymous donor gave $5,000 for the upgrade that allowed us to have the trail leveled and redeveloped to be wheelchair-accessible. In addition, a space within the forest was cleared for an outdoor classroom and a second bridge connecting back down to the field was added. The forest is currently used by many classes for different purposes, such as, teaching science curriculum, building forts, practicing mindfulness, and appreciating nature.
DD: Since the 2001 educational law, No Child Left Behind, and later Obama’s Race to the Top, public schools have focused on literacy and mathematics. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act also prioritizes this over other subjects. Why is outdoor education such an important focus at Champlain Elementary School?
AZ: The Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards both have a large emphasis on the application of learning. Students should be able to take the content they have learned and use it in a real-life scenario. What better place than our own campus to be able to do this? Right in our own schoolyard, we can see concepts and content come to life in a way hard to imitate in the classroom. For example, students might be learning about the difference between estimation and calculation. They could go to the garden, harvest a pumpkin, estimate and then count pumpkin seeds using the skills that they have learned about in math class. In science, we might be studying about the role of decomposers in the ecosystem, and we can investigate the compost pile or observe pillbugs in the forest. Besides the fact that there are direct ties to the standards, it is also just feels good for kids to get outside and connect with nature. We do it as often as we can!