WASHINGTON -- First-graders returning to the Peabody Early Childhood Center on Capitol Hill this week found a new feature in the schoolyard: a large cedar tree.
Moved last month from an adjoining lot that is about to be developed, the cedar will become the centerpiece of a garden of fountains, trees, shrubs, vegetables and flowers, a place where young hands will get dirty and imaginations will be stirred.
"If you live in the city, plants are weeds. To get a different concept of the earth is tremendously important," said Victoria Lord, a parent who is helping with the garden installation whose two children attended the school.
Nor are they alone. In schools across the nation, students are increasingly likely to count a garden in their future, especially in the younger grades.
"There's definitely a grass-roots initiative," said Valerie Kelsey, president of the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt.
Ironically, these outdoor classrooms are being championed by teachers and parents of the baby-boomer generation, whose own early education was generally devoid of such verdant spaces. "I grew up in the 1960s, when the schoolyard was an asphalt field with one tree, which you climbed and were screamed at," said Lord.
Today, rows of vegetables, beds of flowering perennials and shrubs, and potted annuals not only brighten the grounds of many schools but provide a palliative for the computer age.
"It's okay that the technology is so advanced and everything electronic is instant gratification. But parents are looking for ways to bring balance to a child's life. You don't get a tomato in a day; it may take you 60 days to get it, and this brings back the idea of patience, respect for property, cooperation in working with others," said Leslie Honaker, who coordinates school gardening programs in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
"Many people believe kids are more disconnected today," said Kelsey. "They are disconnected with themselves, with others, with plants and the earth; and having a garden in a school gets the kids reconnected."
Children might discover flora during field trips to parks, but in their own school garden they can acquire basic gardening skills, nurturing the same plant from seed to maturity, said Laurie DeMarco, a Virginia Tech instructor who trains educators to run teaching gardens.
Moreover, such cultivated plots can offer opportunities to explore subjects seemingly removed from the garden at hand: mathematics, earth sciences, social studies, the arts and literature.
The first-grader might try to replicate Peter Rabbit's garden, while the fifth-grader does research on the cultural history of the newly planted herbs.
Teaching gardens also have a way of reaching students who have difficulty learning from classroom lectures, educators say. And there is another dimension -- the less-tangible, life-enriching aspects of a life around plants and working with others.
Wendy Sparrow and Anne Richardson, two Alexandria, Va., teachers, have developed an extensive habitat garden over the past six years at Cora Kelly Magnet School. The two say they have seen students blossom along with the garden.
"I don't know that they will all be gardeners when they are adults," said Richardson, of the school's 650 kindergarten through fifth-grade students.
"But at the very least, they will appreciate nature, have an idea of stewardship and the idea that nature can provide a lot of intellectual thought, peace of mind and aesthetic beauty," Richarsdon said.
The school has a large minority and immigrant population, and many of the students live in apartments or rental housing where there are no gardens, said Richardson, a science teacher at Cora Kelly. Sparrow now teaches homebound students for the city.
Kelsey said the movement got a big boost in California, when the state superintendent of schools, Delaine Eastin, began a garden-in-every-school initiative in 1996.
The Peabody garden in Washington has been funded with a $35,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. (The cedar -- and its replanting costs -- were donated by Andrew Scallan, developer of the adjoining lot.)
Another federal agency, the Department of Agriculture, recently recognized a garden at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Va., as the first Millennium Garden in Virginia. A portion of the harvest goes to feed the hungry.
The National Gardening Association has joined other horticultural institutions in pushing for a garden-in-every-school initiative nationally. The program includes a Web site, www.kidsgardening.com, where educators can get advice, including sources of grants and free gardening materials.
Other key factors: lesson plans developed to incorporate the garden into various required academic subjects; help from local garden clubs or parents in maintaining the garden, especially in the summer when the school is closed; and enlisting administrators and teachers behind the project.
The last aspect doesn't seem a problem to Laurie DeMarco, who lives in Salem, Va., but travels the state giving teacher courses.
"We fill the classes quickly," she said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.