Elementary school students in Baldwin are digging in the dirt this fall, but not just during their recess. The young “citizen scientists” are tending to their school’s gardens instead of just reading the pages of another textbook to learn about plants and native wildlife.
Tending to the gardens is part of the unique science curriculum that was designed by a scientist specifically for the Baldwin Union Free School District. All five of the elementary schools boast native gardens through a partnership with Seatuck Environmental Association.
Brookside, Meadow and Plaza elementary schools also maintain vegetable gardens with the help of horticulture experts from Cornell Cooperative Master Gardeners. The gardening, coupled with the study of the local outdoor environment, helps make the science lessons more relatable and easier to understand, resulting in a deeper learning experience, school officials said in a news release.
The students are able to learn about the advantages of native and vegetable gardens through a hands-on approach, including the plants’ importance to the Long Island ecosystem. For instance, the native gardens help prevent polluted runoff flowing into the bay. In addition, the gardens provide vital habitats for birds and many other species of wildlife, such as the Monarch butterfly. Following the district’s teaching approach of “enrichment for all,” the science program is accessible to all Baldwin students.
“The garden work is absolutely thrilling! Students come alive when they actually get their hands on worms and centipedes,” said Nomi Rosen, administrator for professional development. “Students who are typically quiet or reserved in the classroom are abuzz with conversation in the gardens. The excitement is contagious and spills over into research, reading and writing.”
Throughout the school year, the students work in the gardens, learning different lessons each season. In the fall, second graders learn why it is important to winterize a garden, helping to mulch, pull weeds, and plant garlic as part of the soil study. As the months warm up, students at Brookside, Meadow and Plaza will also plant vegetables, from tomatoes and lettuce to beans and kale, which are harvested and cared for by Baldwin students and their families over the summer.
High school and middle school students also play a vital role in building and overseeing the gardens. The Baldwin High School science classes collaborated with Seatuck Environmental Association to design Brookside’s garden, select the native plants and teach the fourth and fifth graders there how to break ground.
Additionally, the garden at Meadow was created by seventh graders from Baldwin Middle School, who drew the blueprint and constructed the layout as a part of their science course. Now, for the first time, beginning in December, the seventh grade students will kick off the middle school’s very own native garden, in preparation for the spring.
The collaborative program is just one of the many ways in which the district’s curriculum correlates from one grade to the next between both the elementary and secondary-level schools, ultimately preparing all students to be “future ready” upon graduation.
On Nov. 5, Meadow students tended to their garden by weeding and pulling out invasive plants, including dandelions and porcelain berries, as bugs crawled around them and a Monarch butterfly gracefully danced around the milkweed.
Students also joined Seatuck Environmental Association Education Director Peter Walsh and botanist and designer Sue Avery in pulling out an invasive tree that started growing in the garden about six months ago, blocking out the light and nutrients for plants underneath it.
Rosen has been working on the science curriculum for five years and explained that each year students focus on a different topic: for example, trees in kindergarten and water in first grade.
Walsh said Seatuck, as a conservation organization, focuses on a mission of conserving Long Island wildlife but also training teachers and conducting research.
“We have a saying,” he said. “‘People only conserve what they love, and they only love what they understand, and they only understand what they’re taught.”
“Our relationship with Baldwin is really just supporting their teachers in getting outside and thinking of their schoolyard as a place of learning and a place where they can go beyond their classroom to connect kids to where they live,” Walsh continued. “It’s one thing to learn about plants but, like today, when you come out and you can touch them and you can see the impact, and the whole time they’re here they’re surrounded by bees and butterflies . . . It’s not a theoretical thing in a book or a smartboard.”
Especially since the students remain connected to the garden as they enter middle school, Walsh said, the memories build upon themselves.
Provided by the Baldwin School District; compiled by Bridget Downes.