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ICG + ICSD: Making Outdoor Learning More Accessible

Ithaca Children’s Garden has always been deeply rooted in the place it was planted. Ithaca City School District, in one way or another, has been a consistent partner to our programs for as long we’ve been doing educational programming!  From field trips to the Garden, to outreach in classrooms or school-aged programs or enrichment sessions, our school district has always been an important piece of the community we serve.

In 2020, ICG Executive Director,  Erin Marteal, was approached as a consultant to work with the entire district on a plan to help all the elementary  schools and teachers better prepare for moving learning outdoors.  With the serendipitous joint partnership with Cornell Masters of Public Health and their Healthy Kids Healthy Planet Toolkit research, a district wide movement was born. 

Through this unique partnership, ICG was able to offer professional learning opportunities for ICSD teachers interested in spending more of their classroom time outdoors.  The pandemic gave a unique nudge in this direction, but the HKHP toolkit outlines a compelling body of research supporting the cognitive, emotional, and social benefits to children spending more time outdoors at all times and indicating that working with schools may just be the most equitable way to support this. 

Erin met with Principals at almost every elementary school, walked the grounds, and created an elaborate set of recommendations for each school considering the challenges and assets of each site.  A broader set of recommendations were created for all of the elementary schools  including infrastructure support considerations, supplies for teachers, gear lists for all teachers and learners plus tips for success in teaching outside.

ICG’s education team was able to leverage their extensive experience of 30+ years (collectively) delivering educational programming outdoors to educational professionals used to teaching within the walls of a classroom.  Using the toolkit as a reference, we presented 2 rounds of the 3 part series:  Outdoor Learning 101, Curriculum Connections in Outdoor Learning, and Routines & Transitions in Outdoor Learning.  With research participation in the HKHP project, teachers were also eligible to earn a mini grant.   

Success in ICSD outdoor learning looks like our children having engaging opportunities in an inclusive space that affirms and validates all students as listeners, speakers, readers, writers, viewers and thinkers.

Mary Grover, ICSD Inclusion Officer

CCETC Youth Horticulture Educator working with ICG, Lauren was able to provide outreach opportunities to classrooms, leading activities outdoors in the school grounds and also leading field trip opportunities at ICG as part of the partnership with Healthy Kids Healthy Planet. Working with 1st grade teachers at Caroline elementary, she led a bee hotel project to meet a need in the engineering standards. Together with teachers and students, Japanese Knotweed, an invasive species, was gathered and processed to create habitat for solitary, cavity nesting native bees. Lauren also met with teachers at BJM to support garden education using their school gardens.  

We were able to work with teachers from almost all the ICSD elementary schools, teaching Pre-K through 5th grade, and specialists. The conversations were intimate, and teachers sharing a grade level or within the same school were able to answer a lot of their own questions. We were able to find out best ways to support teachers in implementing more outdoor learning in their school day, like providing outreach, answering questions, and scheduling field trips to the Garden.

When asked what was the biggest takeaway from their professional development experience, teachers responded:

“I really appreciated the encouragement to lean in to the teachable moments and the language of how to do this in a way that validates kids.”

“I appreciated the ideas about how to integrate the outdoors into all subject areas. Use of manipulatives, lesson design, standing activities for when work is done.”

Valuable work with ICSD continues next year in the following meaningful ways:

  • June, 2022, will be the 3rd year that we’ll deliver 150+ container gardening kits and associated curriculum pieces in support of the Project Innovation/Farm to Table summer program through ICSD
  • ICG Facilities Manager, Jason McClevish, is designing and installing vertical garden infrastructure to upgrade the BJM School garden, as it is facing some upcoming changes to its overall footprint. CCE Youth Horticulture Educator, Lauren Salzman, will be working on supplemental educational support programming to welcome BJM teachers into their new garden space in Spring 2022

Spring 2022 looks promising to return to school field trips to ICG and we are preparing to welcome back teachers and students with updated activities!