A new outdoor classroom on the grounds of Caswell County’s Stoney Creek Elementary School promises to be a healthy learning environment in more ways than one. The facility was built at the school through a project led by Brandi Boaz, assistant 4-H Extension agent, Caswell County Center. As students do hands-on gardening in the outdoor classroom’s six raised vegetable beds and attend nutrition lessons taught in a garden gazebo, the intention is that they learn as they exercise and gain an appreciation for healthy, local produce.
In fact, one reason Stoney Creek was chosen as the site for the garden, Boaz said, is that it had the highest BMI (body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight) among the elementary schools under consideration for the project. Also, Stoney Creek, a public school of about 200 K-5 students, is the smallest of the county’s four elementary schools, which kept the project more manageable in terms of plant beds, equipment and amount of funds needed, Boaz said.
Funding came about through a grant request that Boaz wrote with Jennifer Eastwood, a 4-H advisory council volunteer and employee of the Caswell County Health Department. “We wrote the grant to the Danville Regional Foundation last spring, and the garden was functional by May 2011,” said Boaz. “We now have an outdoor classroom which includes the gazebo (which will hold an entire class), six raised beds, out building (which includes tools they will need) and a curriculum for the teachers to use which meshes the inside learning to the garden.”
The students planted sweet potatoes that grew throughout the summer, with the help of the custodian and principal, Boaz said. “In September we harvested the sweet potatoes with a big Sweet Potato day. In October they planted radishes, turnips and cauliflower for the fall, which have been harvested throughout the fall/winter.”
The classroom garden came about when Boaz was inspired by a similar project Eastwood was working on at the Caswell County Senior Center. “We began to talk about the effort and saw all the wonderful things it could bring to a school system,” she said.
And while they used the plan from the senior center, Boaz added, “we did tweak it to include youth size tools for working. We also included a classroom curriculum that incorporated gardening with classroom skills such as ‘math in the classroom’ and Insect Bingo. We wanted to make the outdoor classroom not only a neat place to ‘play’ outside but also a place that the teachers could truly use as a learning classroom.”
And now, “the students, teachers and community are very excited about our classroom,” she said. “Youth are trying new vegetables and are truly engaged in the process. They walk by the beds each day on their way to lunch and keep an eye out for new produce or problems. … For those who really love the outdoors, this has lead to an explosion of learning in their classrooms. They have developed science projects with sweet potatoes and have tried to incorporate the vegetables they are growing into a true learning experience.”
Boaz cited the efforts of Stoney Creek’s teachers. “The school staff has done an excellent job,” she said. “We have taught composting from the 4-H Soil Solutions to the third graders. We began this two years ago, and they used their organic material in the soil of the first crop we planted.
“This was a great hands-on way to show them how the earth cleans itself and reuses materials.”
A particular highlight of the project for Boaz was “seeing the students during Sweet Potato Day! They were so excited about harvesting their sweet potatoes. … What an amazing learning experience that most of these youth, even in rural North Carolina, may have never gotten. I also loved it when they tried the sweet potatoes for the first time ever. The looks on their faces were priceless, good or bad.”
Assisting these efforts was Brent Swift, an intern from N.C. A&T State University, who helped teach the composting class to third graders and donned a costume to play Spencer Sweet Potato.
Also contributing was Heather Barnes, NCDA&CS marketing specialist for NC Farm to School, Boaz said. “She worked with our county school nutrition coordinator to involve the school in the project, and on Sweet Potato Day our school cafeteria served sweet potatoes to the youth. She was also on hand giving students information on how the program gets farm fresh produce to them quickly. One student even said, ‘Is that why this tastes better?’
“It was a great lesson on food costs, and how we can support our local and state economy.”
Other valuable lessons Boaz noted include “that hard work really does pay off and that the fruits (in this case vegetables) of your labor are even sweeter when you put the work in to growing them. Also that they can try new vegetables (they aren’t going to bite back).”
She hopes the students will share with their parents what they learn about fresh vegetables and gardening, “because after 100 years of 4-H, we still know that a great way to show parents something new is through the eyes of their children.”
A product of rural North Carolina herself, Boaz is a native of Sparta. She is also an alumna of N.C. State, with a 2007 master’s degree in agricultural education (her 1999 bachelor’s degree in ag ed is from Virginia Tech). She has been working with Cooperative Extension in Caswell for going on 12 years.
And her gardening project soon should be flourishing in other Caswell locales.
“Since we began, we have also worked with another school on a sweet potato day and are hoping in the future to get outdoor classrooms at all four local elementary schools. I am also working very closely with the friends of the library to establish a learning garden at our county library,” she said.
“Just like your garden, the possibilities are endless.” – Terri Leith