COLUMBIA — Minutes after the final bell rang at Ridgeway Elementary School a few weeks ago, fourth-grader Cole Nelson was pressing dirt around the delicate stem of a newly planted flower, a rose turtle head.
Little green thumbs like Cole’s are sprouting up all over Columbia, thanks to students, teachers, volunteers and parents tending elementary school gardens. The idea is to give kids a hands-on learning experience and encourage them to play outside, away from TV and video games.
During the summer, community volunteers are helping with the upkeep of most school gardens and outdoor classrooms. Elementary students participating in garden clubs will help out at a few schools.
“For a lot of the kids, it’s one of the few experiences they get in gardening,” said Mark McGimsey, a parent volunteer who helped plan Ridgeway’s gardens. “It gives them a chance to get out and get their hands muddy. And they get to put in a plant and watch it grow for the next several years, and I think that’s going to be a thrill for them. It always was for me as a kid.”
McGimsey said he hopes Ridgeway’s native flowers won’t require much care this summer, though he said he will check on the blossoms weekly. The beds lining the front of the school are the most recent addition to Columbia’s growing number of outdoor classrooms.
McGimsey, a biologist and stay-at-home dad, said he hopes the gardens will make students proud of their school.
“It isn’t often that students get to have an impact on what their grounds look like,” he said.
Ridgeway students are working with a $1,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation. The state has given out 274 grants for outdoor classrooms since 2004, said Regina Knauer, the education program/curriculum supervisor for the department, which has awarded outdoor classroom grants for the past 20 years.
“If teachers are using it as a real classroom, a real laboratory, there’s no way kids won’t learn something or grow from the experience of being outside,” she said.
Knauer said statistics she has seen on outdoor learning are mostly anecdotal but show students who learn outside have better behavioral skills and higher interest levels. Outdoor classrooms lend themselves to “higher-order thinking skills,” Knauer said.
She added that Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” helped ignite the “Leave No Child Inside” movement, an initiative Louv began to get children to spend more time outdoors.
“We are in line with what Louv has said,” Knauer said about Missouri. “We’re glad that Louv is giving attention to something we’ve believed in for such a long time.”
Lee Elementary School’s playground is home to six gardens where students study plants and vegetables. First-grade students in Ann Norris’ class think their urban garden is “awesome.” They said they planted lettuce and sunflowers and enjoy the garden because they can grow food and flowers.
The students learned about the plant life cycle during their science class. They watched their seeds grow and made guesses as to why some didn’t take root.
Ronald Franklin, 7, thought the plant life cycle might be one cause.
“It ‘circlizes,’” Ronald recalled. “It dies and makes a new one. Then it dies and makes a new one.”
The students also talked about how plants are similar to humans.
“You need water, and they need water,” Ronald said. “You breathe air, and they breathe air. They breathe oxygen out for us.”
Ronald’s classmate, Symphony Young, 6, added, “But we don’t need that much sun. We don’t like sun. Humans don’t like sun that much. It makes us hot. It makes us sweat.”
The students said they want to continue to water their plants over the summer. Symphony said she wants to make sure and give her plant more air.
The students said that every school should have a garden and that they are excited to tell their friends about what they learned this year.
“You know how you like flowers because they turn out to be beautiful?” asked Nicole Tinsley, 6. “Sometimes you have to go to a store. There are other flowers you can grow from seeds instead of already grown ones. You can make them live longer and grow them by seeds.”
New Haven Elementary School is home to an older garden in the Columbia Public School District. Community Garden Coalition vice president Lea Langdon has helped sponsor the school’s garden and outdoor classroom for four years.
Langdon said that she knows of at least 11 gardens in the district but that it is difficult to track because schools sometimes abandon gardens. More than 1,100 elementary school gardens across the nation are registered with the National Garden Association.
Langdon will look after the school’s vegetables and flowers at bimonthly meetings this summer along with students from New Haven’s garden club. During the summer, students help tend the gardens with family members. Day care children can also tour the garden and taste the vegetables.
“The kids are really learning where food come from,” Langdon said.
She added that she hopes the gardens will allow students to become more active and involved in the outdoors.
“It brings so much interest to the school yard that can inspire kids more than just concrete and grass,” Langdon said. “Kids need to be out in nature. They need to be aware how life is part of the cycle.”
Art teachers also take students to the garden to draw, she said, but nature doesn’t always follow the lesson plan. Langdon said she heard one story of a spider that interrupted a scheduled drawing class.
“The kids were so fascinated by the spider that they never really drew,” she said. “The teacher was happy, though, because they were so excited about life, learning and observing.”