Classrooms at some McHenry County schools are full of dirt.
Students are learning by digging, planting, plowing and simply taking in nature. The push to get children outside in what supporters call a “No Child Left Inside” movement is growing through area programs at schools, nature centers and conservation areas.
All are working together to fight the alternative – hours upon hours spent connected to electronic media.
“The trend is to spend more time indoors in comfortable air conditioning and less time outdoors playing. They’re very into their video games and things,” said Michelle Soland, a third-grade teacher at Westfield Community School in Algonquin, where, for the second year in a row, students are growing a vegetable garden.
The vegetables raised are donated to the Lake in the Hills-Algonquin Food Pantry, while the benefits to students are endless, Soland said.
“This is a great way to keep them from being nature deprived,” she said.
Students even work throughout the summer to pull weeds and harvest the garden.
Among numerous lessons, the students learn about nutrition, healthy living, the life cycle of plants and simply how it feels to spend time in nature, teachers say.
With recess limited at some schools, outdoor “classrooms” like this become even more critical, supporters say.
Places such as the Crystal Lake Park District Nature Center are ideal for outdoor learning. The center hosts daily field trips, varying from groups of 10 to 75 children ages pre-K and up, said John Fiorina, manager of natural resources for the park district and father of three boys, 5-year-old twins and a 9-year-old.
Fiorina said he grew up in southern Illinois surrounded by woodlands and learned to cherish nature. He hopes to instill that same love of it in his own children and others.
He’ll point out the names of 15 different trees to young visitors. “If they come back and can tell me the name of one of those trees, I’ve done my job. Not because they can remember that’s an oak, but because they come back and want to be outside,” he said.
“My kids are drug through so many natural areas in the course of a year,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll grow up and, if not work in the filed, at least support it and work to protect it. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Studies have shown that children who spend time outdoors actually do better in school, said Deb Chapman, education services manager at McHenry County Conservation District, which provides support to schools looking to enhance curriculum with lessons involving nature.
Whether through field trips or the addition of native habitat areas or structured gardens, any exposure to nature is beneficial, Chapman said.
“From our point of view, what we always want to be doing is raising citizens that care about the environment and want to protect it and know how to take action,” she said.
Studies also have shown that students who spend time outdoors actually focus more, while “unstructured play in nature” helps fight obesity and attention deficit disorder, she said.
“It’s actually really good for kids’ health and well-being and success for school to be out having a chance to play in nature and explore,” she said.
At Woodstock North High School, teachers use a 6,000-square-foot garden for everything from Shakespeare lessons to poetry readings to art classes to simply relaxing.
That was the intention when Garden Coordinator Camden Harlan spearheaded its creation last year.
“I wanted to make sure we not only incorporated gardens and herbs, but also a place where people could walk around and enjoy all the sights and sounds,” she said.
The garden includes all sorts of plants, bushes, trees, wildflowers, fruits and vegetables. It even has “international beds,” with, for instance, the Spanish Club planting jalapeņos and cilantro and the German Club planting everything they need for the homemade potato salad they make for an OktoberFest every fall.
“With budget cuts, they’re not able to go on a lot of field trips,” Harlan said. “This is kind of like an awesome field trip right outside their door.”
Woodstock High also has a fruit, vegetable and flower garden, while Creekside Middle School has a wildflower garden. A vegetable garden is in the works at Prairie Wood Elementary School.
“The garden is something they can take with them the rest of their lives and use those skills,” Harlan said.
In touch with nature
In some cases, children are so inspired, they bring a bit of nature home.
The Barkers of Oakwood Hills ended up with some additions to their family after 9-year-old Andrea Barker began working in the garden at Prairie Grove Elementary School. She’s created her own worm garden.
“It just kind of appeared out of nowhere,” said her mother, Andrea. “She’s always looking for food scraps that she can put in there.”
Andrea Barker thought her daughter had made the home at school, but later found out that digging in the school’s garden had inspired the homemade creation.
“This has become her little niche,” Andrea said. “I do a little bit [of gardening] at home, but really her enthusiasm has come from the school.”
The Prairie Grove school has several gardens, the first beginning in 2005 as a science lab for students.
Since, Art Teacher Dotty Painter has applied for grants and added “The Secret Garden” of wildflowers and native grasses and what they’ll likely call “Garden Sense.” Now in the works, the third garden outside the cafeteria will include herbs and vegetables that help the students learn with their five senses, Painter said.
All of the gardens help the students nurture more than just the skills they need to pass tests, supporters say. The students have drawn, painted and photographed the gardens, drawn up plans for them and observed them through the seasons, along with, of course, growing their plants and vegetables.
Painter can see the impact the gardens have had on children, even bringing students out during stressful days and watching their anxiety ease almost instantly.
“Everyone needs to be in touch with nature,” Painter said. “It is a part of learning how to observe. If you don’t experience that as well as your math facts, you’re missing that piece. ...
“Sometimes we just go out there and play, but we play constructively.”