By Raquel DeSouza
Two Loudoun County public elementary schools, Sterling Elementary and Mill Run Elementary, have joined an environmental program called Green Kids this past school year. Interested schools apply to join a two-year partnership with the Audubon Naturalist Society, which gives grants and sends representatives to work with teachers on creating lessons.
Sterling Elementary first-grade teacher Kathy Hayden applied for Green Kids to get guidance on where to take the campus’ garden next. She was inspired to make use of the school’s barren courtyard after taking a teacher workshop on monarch butterflies. This small idea to create a monarch way station led to starting an after-school club that has been running for about five years. The club is appropriately named the Green Team and has around 20 students and volunteering parents.
“The kids see wildlife out there, whether it’s a tadpole or crickets or slugs and butterflies, and they get really excited about it,” Hayden says. “They want to know more. I think in this day and age … it’s great to see children outside.”
The Green Team was still at work over the summer with planting, weeding and labeling the plants. Exploration and creativity were not on the to-do list, but the children’s enthusiasm was apparent. A recent graduate placed rocks on the bottom of his pond because he learned from his Boy Scout master that it would help with breaking down waste. He also worked with a friend to make a waterfall into the pond for its new residents, a family of ducks. Another student found a Japanese beetle larva, and this led to an impromptu discussion about invasive species.
The courtyard is incorporated in the class curriculum for all grade levels. Classes learn about native Northern Virginia plants and how the garden’s rain barrel and composter work. Teachers take students there to do math measuring activities, such as measuring the size of plant life, or to just get some fresh air and read.
Mill Run Elementary uses its outdoor gardens, patio and seating area for a variety of classes and for all ages as well. The school has a total of 16 plant areas, with a recent addition of a sensory garden that has plants for sight, smell and touch. Another spot has rows of trees that each student in a fourth-grade class got to plant.
The program also informs students to be aware about recycling and reducing waste. Both schools weighed the lunch waste one day and talked about how they could throw out less food. One suggestion was for parents to only pack food that they know their kids would eat, according to Mill Run principal John Cornley.
Mill Run Elementary had an event-packed Earth Day with planting flower beds, with the help from the Ashburn Home Depot, and learning how to conserve energy.
“We did an Earth Day the day before spring break. [It’s] really just talking about conserving energy and being aware of that,” says Cornley. “So we shut down our computers and turned down the lights, and the kids brought in board games.”
Both Hayden and Cornley say that their goal with the gardens is to have the students’ outdoor learning be translated to their homes and neighborhoods.
“I think [with] something like this, the more that you get involved—whether it’s the kids [or] the adults—the better,” Hayden says. “I think it’s just wonderful to have them connect to the community, and [it’s] something they can do [and] take home.”