by Ashley Thompson, Director of Education and Interpretation
“Trees are nature for all of us.” – First Grader, Montpelier Elementary School
6am, Wednesday morning.
Shovel and containers in hand, I walk into my backyard on a mission: to find examples of healthy and unhealthy soil. This has to be done in the early morning, because I’m taking these soil samples to an elementary school and really, the fresher the better. I find a good chunk of dry, light brown, compacted dirt near a regular walking path and dig it up. I steal a scoop of the soft, damp, rich earth from a garden bed. I’m ready, and on my way to visit a first grade class at Montpelier Elementary School in Laurel, MD.
Two weeks ago these students visited the National Colonial Farm for our Eco-Explorers: Colonial Time Warp program, where they explored the differences between their lives and the lives of Maryland colonists in the 18th century, and considered the environmental cost of those differences. Why does it matter if we use disposable plastic water bottles instead of reusable canteens, or electric lights instead of candles? At the end of the field trip, we ask every student: “Using what you’ve learned, how can you save the planet?” And now these six- and seven-year-olds are ready to do just that, by planting native trees on their school grounds. First, though, we need to discuss the basics:
“What do trees need to live?”
We cover air, sunlight, water. We talk about how we need to eat healthy food and live in a healthy environment so we can grow big and strong, and our trees need the same thing. I pull out the containers of healthy and unhealthy soil and ask the kids to guess which is which. This causes some difficulty and they finally agree on the box of soil that has grass growing in it and no insects or worms crawling around. (It happens to be the unhealthy sample!)
“That’s such a good guess! Now let’s talk about how we can really use science to tell if the soil is healthy.”
- Just because a plant is growing in the soil doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Plants can grow a little in unhealthy soil, just like people grow if they eat unhealthy food. Also, some plants do really well in unhealthy soil!
- A lot of times, bugs crawling around means the soil is healthy. They need a healthy environment just like plants do! And some of these insects actually help make healthy soil. Worms eat dead plants and turn them into healthy soil in their stomachs, which they then poop out!
- A lot of times you can tell how healthy soil is by the color. Good dark brown soil has a lot of organic matter (there’s that worm poop again!) that has vitamins and minerals in it for plants to eat.
- And finally, healthy soil needs to be able to soak up water so it gets to the roots of the plants instead of letting it just run off and create puddles.
I pull out a water bottle so we can test the last one, and we watch as the dark brown dirt that they originally decided was “unhealthy” soaks up the water like a sponge, while it runs off the dirt in the other container and pools up around the corners.
I ask again: “Ok, now that you know more, which one do you think is healthier?” and they all get it right.
Last summer, the arts integration teacher at Montpelier Elementary, along with 10 other teachers from schools in Prince George’s County Public School system, spent one week with me here at the National Colonial Farm exploring ways to extend the Eco-Explorers: Colonial Time Warp experience into the classroom by channeling students’ enthusiasm and newly-gained knowledge about history and the environment into Meaningful Watershed Education Experiences. This Green History Summer Teacher Institute, paid for by a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, focused on action projects students could take on in their schools and communities to help protect and heal the local environment, and by extension the Bay, the ocean, and the whole planet. During that week teachers explored 18th century agricultural practices like mono-cropping and how they still impact the planet today, learned some basics of permaculture, experimented with museum education strategies in object-based education, and brainstormed ways they and their students could positively impact their school environment.
One year later, these teachers have brought 450 students ranging in age from first grade to tenth grade and spanning six different schools across PGCPS to the National Colonial Farm to participate in Eco-Explorers: Colonial Time Warp. Back in their classrooms, the teachers are asking their students to reflect on their experience on the trip and how they can use what they’ve learned to become changemakers in their own schools. Engaging other grades and classes in the process means these programs are engaging over 1,000 students across the county.
The range of projects these students are taking on is astounding as these students go to great effort to prove that yes, they can save the world! Just a few examples, besides the tree planting at Montpelier:
- 5th graders at Concord Elementary are providing recycling bins to every classroom and teaching younger students how to recycle
- 1st-3rd graders from John Hanson Montessori are creating a pollinator garden for monarch butterflies
- 4th graders at John Hanson Montessori are teaming up with their 5th grade schoolmates and organizing a lunchroom recycling system as well as a schoolyard cleanup
- 9th-12th graders at the International High School at Largo are building both a vegetable garden and a rain garden, and their efforts and the new partnership with the Accokeek Foundation has helped them become a Green School this year!
I’ve been privileged to visit these schools as the students work on their project, where I’ve been able to lead brainstorming and debriefing sessions, provide equipment and seeds, and provide educational activities about soil health, the impacts of garbage on wildlife, and how to address issues of waste in one’s own school. Along the way I’ve been absolutely inspired by the enthusiasm of young children on a mission and the dedication of the teachers who work hard to support them. Next, I’ll be using the lessons learned from this past year to create sample lesson plans and resources for other teachers who want to replicate this process in their own classrooms.
Back at Montpelier with the first grade class, I show them some of the equipment they’ll use to plant and take care of their trees – shovels, watering cans – and tell them not to worry if the soil they find in their schoolyard isn’t great – that’s what potting soil is for! Sometimes we need to give the planet a little extra love, and I trust these kids to do that – and in the process they’ll save the world.