Outdoor education and garden grow at McPherson Elementary School

By Julie Woon 

Students and Donors prepare to cut the ribbon at the opening of the new garden at McPherson Elementary on Friday, October 17, 2014.
Students and Donors prepare to cut the ribbon at the opening of the new garden at McPherson Elementary School.

Raised garden beds and a bright purple and yellow playground surround McPherson Elementary School in Lincoln Square. It’s too cold to plant now, but when the weather warms up in spring, students will be out digging in the dirt and planting a full array of colorful vegetables: carrots, tomatoes and peppers. The new garden and playground facelift at McPherson is courtesy of a partnership between Openlands, a metropolitan conservation organization in Chicago, and Chicago Public Schools.

The initiative, Building School Gardens, aims to benefit students and their communities by adding gardens and outdoor play areas. The new gardens will allow students to take what they are learning in science classes and apply it in a real life setting.

“We really do feel like daily connection with nature is really important to people’s well-being and their health,” said Jamie Zaplatosch, Openlands’ education director who attended the garden’s opening Friday. “School gardens have the ability to do that …Whether or not they are even actively learning or sitting in the space, being around nature makes people feel better. It makes them better learners.”

Gardening sounds like an inexpensive activity but on average, Openlands and other donors are spending about $800,000 to build each school garden. The money goes for multiple large garden beds, a new playground with a rubberized floor and an outdoor classroom area. Additional money is spent training school staff on how to maintain the gardens. So far, Openlands has built gardens in more than 55 Chicago schools. Organizations such as the Collective School Gardens Network and the National Gardening Association are bringing similar initiatives to schools across the country.

McPherson Elementary School Principal Carmen Mendoza emphasized the importance of having the outdoor area at her international baccalaureate school.

The garden will help the school provide students with a well-rounded education, she said. “It’s hands on, so it’s really exciting for the kids to be able to see what we’ve been talking about for so many years,” Mendoza said.

But research differs on whether taking the classroom outdoors actually benefits learning.

Students who had outdoor learning incorporated into their curriculum scored higher than those in traditional classrooms in science, mathematics and reading, according to a study conducted by the California State Education and Environment Roundtable. The students also had higher attendance rates.

However, another study by the Environmental Design Research Association found that some students were more likely to do poorly in an outdoor classroom setting. Students who had fears of insects and were uncomfortable with getting dirty struggled to focus during outside class time. Weather, allergies and risk of injury could also be limiting factors in outdoor education.

Teachers will have to weigh the pros and cons of taking their students out of the classroom, researchers say. But principal Mendoza is looking forward to giving students the opportunity to branch out. “They enjoy the outside,” she said. Now, they can, “see the beauty that surrounds them.”