Nature Goes to School


ATHENS - Nearly 175 parents and teachers from all over Georgia came to Chase Street Elementary School last weekend for the 13th Annual Outdoor Classroom Symposium.

The theme for the two-day event was Growing Fertile Minds, and in addition to free educational materials it featured scarecrows made of recycled aluminum packaging, an earthworm colony, a spirited game of hopscotch, and a visit to a sow with 2-day old piglets.

The meeting was one of many sponsored by the Outdoor Classroom Council, an initiative of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia.

Workshop leaders sought to increase awareness of environmental issues and to help teachers demonstrate the fragility of nature's ecosystems in their home classrooms.

"No matter where a child lives, they need to understand that it's a habitat for organisms as well," said Ashley Potter, a workshop presenter and middle school teacher at Morgan County Middle School in Madison. Her session showed how simple playground games can be used to make larger points.

When fields and woods are turned into housing developments, for example, migratory birds may lose an overnight stop they've counted on for centuries. Potter showed the teachers how to illustrate this point using hopscotch, a game that requires nothing more than chalk and an expanse of concrete or asphalt.

When squares are crossed off and taken out of play, students can easily visualize how new subdivisions disrupt the migration of birds. Potter used another game, a riff on " red rover," to illustrate the concept of "carrying capacity"-- this refers to the maximum number of organisms a specific environment can sustain.

Even teachers in urban school systems, where there are few grassy areas, can use strategies like these to incorporate the outdoors into their.

"I want them to just not be afraid to go outside with their kids," she said, "Because kids need outside."

Several sessions featured outdoor instructional programs designed to improve children's eating habits. Some of the teachers talked about vegetable gardening and farming as an instructional technique that teaches concepts and provides healthy physical activity.

"My passion is the natural sciences, especially biology and ecology, so I said: ‘I just need to get these kids outside, and the most immediate way to do that was to grow a garden, and start an outdoor garden at our school,'" said Jason Smith, a high school science teacher from Barrow County.

Smith was one of about two dozen teachers who tucked themselves into chairs designed for third graders for a workshop sponsored by Farm-to-School. "Farm-to-school is a strategy to get schools connected to farms," said Erin Croom, the Farm-to-School Coordinator for Georgia Organics. "Basically it means getting fresh, local food into the school system where possible."

In the now distant past, school lunchrooms served local foods because that made economic sense. But as federal subsidy programs expanded and regulations tightened, locally grown produce gave way to centralized purchasing and distribution, according to Croom.

Schoolyard gardens and culinary education programs are bucking that tide by bringing local foods back into lunchrooms and classrooms. Chase Street Elementary, which hosted the symposium, has programs like this.

One teacher said that it is hard to educate children about environmental issues, the outdoors, and gardening while meeting the Georgia Performance Standards--a state-mandated method of assessment.

However, teachers are taking matters into their own hands by developing new programs to help those children most in need.

"A lot of the students that I work with live in housing projects, so they don't have access to grocery stores and produce," said Valerie Oxford, a kindergarten teacher at Gaines Elementary School. "A lot of them don't eat properly at home, so I'm interested in teaching kids more about where food comes from and what they can do to be able to grow food for themselves and empower them."

Teachers came to the workshop looking for ideas that will help them improve life and education for kids throughout Georgia."I'm trying to use the Farm-to-School or any of the other stuff I've signed up for here to better our program and make it work for the kids as best as possible," said Smith, the Barrow County teacher.

Despite gray skies and a steady drizzle, a hardy band of teachers finished the day with a bus trip to Spring Valley EcoFarms, run by former University of Georgia professor Carl Jordan and his family. This working farm raises fruits, vegetables and livestock using sustainable and natural practices.

The conference organizers hoped that the tour would raise awareness of the benefits of local, fresh food. Judging by the number of teachers fighting back the urge to pick eggplants or peppers as they walked the field, they succeeded. For more information about Farm-to-School, Spring Valley EcoFarms, or the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia, visit:

Report by James Hataway and Jordan Sarver

This article and video were originally published on the WNEG-TV web site on Thursday, 19 November 2009.

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From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway
From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway

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