Planting the Seeds of the WHS Learn + Play Gardens

The third blog post for our April series Getting Outside to Volunteer features Andi Cooper, Director of Business Development at WRD Environmental. Andi is working on a project to transform the campus at her son’s school into a the WHS Learn + Play Gardens. One of the most important steps was to bring together a dedicated group of parents, teachers, school administrators, and students to help make this dream come true!

WHS Edible Garden construction volunteers hard at work. Photo by Andi Cooper.

By Andi Cooper

It’s a chilly Saturday in April, and I’m standing with my family, our principal and 15 parent volunteers on the grounds of my son’s elementary school, in Lombard, Illinois. It’s a big day. We’ve all gathered to install the first piece of our vision for the grounds of William Hammerschmidt School (WHS) – the WHS Edible Garden, made possible by support from DuPage FORWARD.

A gaggle of children run around as we prepare to get to work. “I’m amazed at the size and expertise of the build team,” observes one parent. “With architects, engineers, and tradesmen, we could build almost anything!” And we will. While the huge boxes surrounding us today will become six raised beds (one for each grade level at WHS), a garden shed and two park benches, this garden is only one part of our huge dream – The WHS Learn + Play Gardens.

The Edible Garden Build Team. Photo by Brigitte Baur.

Ambitious Beginnings
A year and a half ago, the school principal and a few parents decided to create a road map to transform the school grounds using a green-schoolyard approach.

Our dream is to inspire students to get outdoors, connect to nature and move their bodies – hence “leave no child inside.”  It includes extending the curriculum beyond the school walls and into the landscape with a butterfly garden, outdoor classroom, and science plaza.

As the mother of a WHS second-grader and a landscape architect, this project is near and dear to my heart, prompting me to volunteer to chair WHS Learn+Play Gardens. I’m supported by my employer, WRD Environmental, whose mission is to help our clients create sustainable, healthy environments.

WRD is helping three Chicago high schools convert nearby vacant properties into outdoor science labs. It also has helped Western Avenue Elementary School, in Geneva, Illinois, create an Edible Schoolyard.

We at WHS are inspired by Western Avenue, which has realized its dream of a beautiful edible garden and created a garden curriculum. There’s talk of having the two become “sister garden schools,” with trips to each other’s gardens, shared resources and student pen pals.

Like Western Avenue, WHS plans to grow pumpkins and gourds this first year and celebrate with a fall pumpkin festival. But before we can harvest those pumpkins, we need to plant the seeds!

Get Growing
One of the first tasks of the WHS Edible Garden/Outdoor Education Committee was to organize the logistics of preparing for the seedlings, which included the decision that students will grow them indoors and transplant them into the Edible Garden.

So two parents led the WHS Student Garden Club in a session to make newspaper pots. One fourth grader leveled with me about all the hard work she and her classmates put in, saying, “We made 150 newspaper pots during Garden Club … so every student can plant something. It was sort of hard because some of the newspaper came undone, so we had to redo them.”

WHS Student Garden Club prepares planting pots. Photo by Brigitte Baur.

Teachers are rallying behind the Edible Garden, too. One is excited to contribute her classroom’s “worm tea” to each bed and to help other teachers start composting in their classrooms. Another organized a fundraiser for which students and their families created over 110 unique garden stones that will be installed in the Edible Garden this spring.

Realizing the Dream
Back at our workday, as I look around at all the parents assembling raised beds, hammering the boards of the shed and bolting back rests onto the benches, it gives me hope that the rest of our WHS Learn + Play Gardens dream will be realized.

The rain begins, a light sprinkling that doesn’t slow us down, but sends our children running for the huge, discarded boxes, whooping and hollering. They build their own cardboard village and call to each other, laughing as their make-believe stories unfold.

WHS students build a cardboard village . Photo by Andi Cooper.

I pause to watch them, and in my mind’s eye, their cardboard houses become the overhang of a leafy branch, a stand of native grasses, or fruiting trees. I imagine them playing hide-and-seek among the shade trees, learning about the solar system or the history of our town while captivated by the great outdoors.

Spring is peeking around the corner, teasing us with snippets of sunshine and liberal doses of rain. Today we wrap our arms around ourselves and pause in the chill air to watch our kids take shelter from the rain.  One day, in the very near future, we will pause on these newly constructed park benches, soaking up the autumn sun as we watch our children dig in the soil and harvest their very first pumpkins.

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