Frank Slater and Ted Olinger
First-grader Wyatt Harding serves up some freshly delivered mulch. Bette McCord
A teacher tells her students to put on their science socks. The first-graders dutifully obey, slipping into oversized fuzzy socks, and follow her outside for a walk through the field next to Evergreen Elementary School.
On their return, they pick out seeds that have stuck to the socks and compare them to drawings and written descriptions. Once they match a seed to its parent plant or tree, they discuss how the seed might have traveled from its source to where it was found.
“Children are more interested in things than in ideas,” said Evergreen Principal Hugh Maxwell. “Something they have found in the wild, brought in and examined makes ideas interesting.”
Students who work together to identify things that need to be described and measured get motivated to learn other things, like language and math, he said. This was the inspiration behind Wildwoods, Evergreen’s new 2-1/2 acre outdoor learning area adjacent to the school.
Peninsula School District has owned the property abutting the north side of the school for some time. Evergreen staff convinced the district last year to clear and fence the overgrown lot and allow the staff and students to create a native plant nursery, garden and study area.
The work began in earnest in March 2016 with teachers, parents, students and other volunteers pulling out invasive blackberry roots, spreading new mulch and planting more than 20 different species of native trees and plants.
“In our state standards, grades K through five are very life-science focused,” said third-grade teacher Therese Souers. “Every grade level revolves around life science and this gives us the opportunity to actually do it in the field instead of just read about it. We decided that outdoor learning experiences are important for students; having to sit in classrooms all day long is not what they want to be doing.”
The students are also helping out, Souers said. “One of the key things we want them to learn is stewardship of the land, which means somebody has to be responsible for taking care of it. They’re learning to identify noxious weeds and put them into ‘plant jail,’ for example, to keep them from escaping. It’s also teaching them observation and the importance of basic research."
According to fifth-grader Samantha Chisa, “Kids need to learn more about nature. Everyone wants to pitch in to help the younger kids learn more about fresh air, plants dying and decomposing, and protecting the area.”
Fifth-grade teacher Denise Ohlson was surprised by how eager her students were to explore the new area. “They would like to start developing a plant identification format on their ChromeBooks that can be shared on Google Docs,” she said. “They want to start with signs for the larger trees and plants. Each year, each class can revise and improve upon the identification tags and placards.”
Fifth-grader Dylon Alena said, “I think the Wildwoods helps us with science and nature. It makes us want to take care of the KP.”
Grants and donations from nurseries, a student candy drive and lots of volunteering have gotten the project off the ground, Souers said. “This can’t be done without community support in a big way, so we’re looking for groups to come help,” she said. “Donated services, even tree stumps and logs and some way to get them here.”
“The kids are truly excited and engaged when they are out there,” Maxwell said. “I see great things happening here.”