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Learning blooms in Deerfield outdoor classroom

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What began years ago with small planting and composting projects has blossomed into an outdoor classroom rooted in centuries-old Native American and Pilgrim traditions. Led by School Librarian Julie Krass and Master Gardener parent volunteer Jennie Goossen, Deerfield Elementary School now boasts three types of gardens that yield bountiful opportunities for student learning and engagement.

“The groundwork laid by teachers, the PTO and key parent volunteers over several years made it possible to expand from limited outdoor plantings and composting to a space where students and teachers could congregate to our now thriving outdoor classroom and gardens,” said School Librarian Julie Krass. She added that without Goossen’s guidance, the project would not be what it is today.

Goossen volunteers her time, often multiple days a week, to teach students and coordinate many aspects of the outdoor classroom. In 2017, she brought to Principal Josh Baumer the idea of incorporating ethnobotanical gardens, which feature plants and flowers historically grown by cultures in a particular region.

“The ethnobotanical gardens give students a keen sense of their ecosystem with strong connections to what they’re studying in history, science, social studies, and more,” Goossen said. “I love seeing them with their hands in the dirt, learning where their food comes from, and excited to eat whatever is growing.”

“While we’re in the outdoor classroom, we learn a lot about plants and how to take care of the environment,” said Amanda, a Deerfield fifth-grader. “Some of my favorite things are that we get to plant and not just watch the teacher explain how the growing process works.”

Jaden (left) and Michael plant row of asparagus.

Jaden (left) and Michael plant row of asparagus.

The Wampanoag “Three Sisters” garden features corn, beans, and squash, which the tribe knew could be combined to create nutritionally complete meals and also stored well for wintertime. Early settlers grew colonial kitchen gardens of herbs mixed with fruits and vegetables. Chives, leeks, lettuce, and peas are among the items in Deerfield’s colonial garden, with turnips, sage, cucumbers, and more to come later this year. The school’s raised-bed “backyard garden” represents what is typically found in Westwood today, including plants like tomatoes, carrots, asparagus, basil, and dill.

One of the best things about the outdoor classroom and gardens is that the entire student body is involved, along with teachers, administrators, and parents.

“Helping with the outdoor classroom brings people together and helps them work together,” said fifth-grader Mady.

Last year, Kindergarten students painted color-coded rocks to mark which plants are which. Fifth-graders measured the grid and placed the color-coded stones to guide our second-grade planters. Mounds of soil and compost were prepared by another grade, and finally our second-graders did the planting with parent volunteers,” Krass said.

As the seedlings sprouted, surrounding trees came into bloom, leaving the Three Sisters garden lacking sun exposure. To determine a better spot for this year, first- and fourth-grade students conducted a shade study.

“It turned out to be a great way for students to gain the concept of failing forward; that even when you plan, you have to be ready to adapt. You don’t just give up,” said Krass.

Students plant peas in colonial garden around trellis made by classmates.

Students plant peas in colonial garden around trellis made by classmates.

Throughout all phases of the project, the students have been eager and excited as they continuously learn.

“I used to think you just watered the top of the plants, but I learned that you put it under the plant and it soaks in,” said second-grader Ari.

“They’re so gung-ho. They’re often asking if they can work in the gardens during lunch and recess,” Goossen said. “We’ve started a Garden Club for grades three through five. Initially, we planned to meet one day a week before school, but we had to add a second day to accommodate all of the students who wanted to join.”

And there’s no shortage of community support either.

In the summers, families volunteer to water, weed, and nurture the gardens. Grants and in-kind donations from the Foundation for Westwood Education, Hale Reservation, Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom, and Wegmans Food Market have been key. The PTO’s initial and annual contributions, in particular, have been instrumental to sustaining the project.

“A ton of wonderful happens in our outdoor classroom,” said Krass, “and none of it would be happening without the generous support of our community.”

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