The chirping sound of the cicadas in the month of August always signaled to me as a child that the summer season was winding down and that the the new school year was fast approaching. When I was growing up in Columbus our school year didn’t begin until the month of September, the day after Labor Day. It was a time of both dread and joy. Dread because one had to leave behind the freedom of summer and gear up for the serious nature of the school year. And joy because it brought with it a freshness of school supplies, an au courant style of shoes and a bold, new, though analogous school uniform. (I attended a parochial school, as you might have guessed.)
This year’s chirping cicadas reminded me of a school district in Southern Maine where boulders were strewn across the elementary school campus before the school year began in 2013. “Why would anyone scatter large, heavy rocks across an inviting lawn leading to the school’s front entrance?” I thought to myself. Indisputably, heavy machinery had to be used to place all those boulders there!
The boulders were the brainchild of three faculty members who taught fourth and fifth grade students. They wanted to create a reading garden on the school grounds to not only inspire students to read more, but to get them to experience the outdoors. The lawn to the school entrance seemed the most natural spot to establish this reading garden since there were large plots of grass that were underutilized. Over the summer of 2013, a group of the school’s staff got busy creating a reading garden for the students. This reading garden included large stones of almost two dozen different varieties and various sizes and shapes as well. There were round boulders that reminded one of ancient millstones. Then there were those that were shaped like the chaise lounge found on a deck. Others were narrow and stood vertically like infantrymen ready for battle. Still others were odd forms that were not shaped by nature. The grass was removed, native and non-native plants were sown, and mulch was added as a walking path to the boulders. Students could sit on or lean against a rock in solitude or share a book with others, depending upon the size and shape of the boulder and the individual’s interests.
Teachers worked with a passionate stonemason from a nearby town who did all the stonework and installation. The local Rotary Club provided the seed money to get the project started and contacted the district Rotary Club which allocated a substantial grant. A local bank matched the grant monies which covered much of the cost. School fundraisers that school year contributed to the remaining costs. The students and community were ecstatic about their new space!
Faculty at the school were inspired to create the boulder reading garden after reading the book “Last Child Left in the Woods” by Richard Louv. Louv’s book directly links the loss of an interest in the outdoors and nature to the overuse of electronic devices by today’s wired generation. He refers to it as “nature deficit” and claims that it contributes to childhood trends of obesity, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and depression.
The project that began with a few faculty members was embraced by the entire staff. The idea grew from relaxing reading benches into a more complex idea that could be used for other lessons as well. The more the project committee thought about it, the more the stones made sense as they realized the educational opportunities the stones presented to teachers and students. The whole idea was to get the students outside and create an outdoor classroom. The teachers understood the impact that structured and unstructured activities could have on students. The boulder reading garden became a curriculum tie-in for science, math and all the other subjects. Some teachers even had their students research additional native plants which were added to the boulder reading garden in years that followed.
When I was a classroom teacher I often took my students outdoors during warm weather. It always seemed to me that one’s brain was so much clearer when one was sitting under a tree, particularly in the midst of a noisy city.
Take advantage of nature’s assests; it just might bring you the clarity that you have been searching.
Wanda Dengel, B.S., M.A.T., is a long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher who served on the Diocesan Catholic Schools Advisory Commission in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org