We value curiosity, joy, empathy, and community above all other human qualities and strive to create a school where they are in evidence throughout the environment. We believe that young children are capable of caring deeply about all forms of life, and consequently, that it is our responsibility to nurture and promote their relationships with the natural world. Our goal is to create and sustain a place where the indoor and outdoor environments are integrated and balanced, explorations and learning embrace the wonder of all things living, and each person shares reverence, respect, and responsibility for the wellbeing of all the Earth’s inhabitants.
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What does this look like? Our school is noticeable for the massive Water Oaks, draped with Spanish Moss, that provide shade in the front of the building. There are other lovely plantings natural to northern Florida which are home to small reptiles, insects, and spiders. The outside environment is also busy with wild turkeys and many other birds. Children are naturally curious and adults model safe, respectful exploration and discovery of the natural world.
The Children’s Garden and surrounding grounds are rich with invitations to investigate, examine, and discover. In these natural spaces children can explore and dream as they develop physically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively. The visual impact of flowers, vegetables, and living creatures attracts the children to the garden, where they experience the varying textures and hues of the growing plants. Olfactory cells are stimulated by the fragrance of flowers and herbs; auditory senses notice the sounds of grasses rustling in the wind, birdsong, and the buzzing of bees. The sensory – rich garden provides many textures for children to touch and dig, including soil, sand, gravel, and mulch. Nerve endings, through sensory receptors in the skin, send information to the brain and assist in integration of sensations that are identified by touch. The young child’s ability to take in and process sensory data strengthens their ability to filter information received simultaneously; they focus attention on some sensations while ignoring others, building connections to sustain learning.
Gardening requires a variety of movements, supporting both physical and brain development. The children purposefully carry out both fine and gross motor tasks, digging holes to plant seeds or seedlings, carrying heavy rocks to build a wall, picking up tiny seeds and placing them in a hole or spreading them carefully over a wide space. Picking flowers takes skill and practice; pull too hard and the roots come up, cut too high up and there is no stem to put in the vase. Balance and attentive focus are required to walk on path that vary in texture and change with the weather.
Social growth occurs when children work together in the natural world. They learn to listen to each other and share what they know. They encounter situations that involve taking turns, compromising, and sharing. Everyone must work cooperatively in the garden to solve problems when they occur, building a sense of community. The garden demands patience; plants grow at their own pace. The garden gives children opportunities to self-regulate, taking time to explore in detail, mindfully aware of plants at their feet. Children who observe closely will notice small changes from day to day, greater changes from week to week. They learn the need for patience and careful observation; they learn to nurture. Self-regulation is a skill which serves us throughout life, in any field of work. Cognitive skills involving mathematics – counting seeds, measuring rows, and comparing growth – are developing. Children learn about seasons as they discover the impact of temperature and light on plant growth. They discover many cultural traditions when they cook with vegetables and herbs using recipes from a wide variety of cuisines. Literacy is strengthened when children name and label rows of seedlings, research the uses and origins of plants, and share poetry, songs, and fiction with plant themes.
Children develop confidence as they work in the garden. They conquer fears as they encounter new creatures in their explorations, examine them, hold them in their hands, and then respectfully return them to their habitats. A sense of calm comes from handling the soil, gently hiding the roots of seedlings in the soil, observing the plants and animals that inhabit the garden. In a garden, children can find – or create – a private space. Everyone benefits from a place where they can reflect and dream. Garden spaces offer children the opportunity to appreciate solitude within the comfort of natural beauty.
The work involved in gardening supports children’s physical development, sustains all their senses, and assists everyone in learning to slow down and observe, alert to beauty in the natural world. Working in a garden offers a unique opportunity for adults to model “habits of mind,” such as curiosity, cooperativeness, respect for living things, persistence, and caring, all of which will serve children well throughout their lives.