School has ramped up for another industrious year, marking a bittersweet end to the long, languid days most Lawrence children could spend outdoors, capturing fireflies or collecting worms. But for the kids at Hilltop Child Development Center, life in the wild has just begun.
The center at Kansas University recently received the Wuzzleburg Preschool Garden grant from the National Gardening Association, Nickelodeon Jr. and "Wow! Wow! Wubbzy." Only 75 of the 1,035 schools that applied were selected for the $1,000 grant, which buys gardening supplies and educational resources from the NGA's Gardening with Kids catalog. The winning schools span 42 states, the District of Columbia and three sites hit by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In order for schools to be considered, they had to demonstrate a commitment to creativity in the outdoors and actively engaging children in developing a lifelong love of learning and growing.
Pat Pisani, Hilltop's executive director, explains why the preschool might have been successful in acquiring the grant.
"First, it would benefit a large number of children, which I'm sure was helpful. We also had a distinctive plan for the grant," she says. "The garden is a new thing this year, and we have big plans. Right now we have a nature garden and a small flower plot from the grant, but the major garden will come in the fall."
Hilltop is currently under a vast construction boost, with plans to add three classrooms and accommodate 300 students by next year's opening.
The theme of the building has always encompassed Kansas nature. The architecture is meant to feel like a home, with the kitchen as a focal meeting place. The center also is made out of natural materials like wood and stone, and the colors are nature-based. Even the names of the classrooms stem from the outdoors, like the Butterfly Room, Bumblebee Room and Turtle Room.
"Anything that involves nature is a great interest for kids," Pisani says. "They are natural scientists - they'll get on their knees and explore.
"You don't teach science to kids, you do science with kids," she adds. "You get down on the ground and see what they see. This is a wonderful way to get the materials to the adults to help aid them in what comes naturally to the kids."
I ask Pisani if she thinks kids get as dirty nowadays as they used to - if maybe all the conveniences of our modern-day society isn't in some respects cheating kids out of a meaningful relationship with the outdoors.
"You don't have to show a child a DVD of something. It is always better to get face-to-face, touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, rather than watching a Web site," she says. "There may be a deficiency of kids having quality time outside. Unfortunately, parents are often not outside themselves getting dirty. A lot of families might not have room to garden, or if a family does have a garden, oftentimes the kids are told not to step here or there."
The basic learning concepts that nature can extend to children is bountiful, a simple awareness of the fragility and resilience of nature, or finding beauty and a quiet balance for repose and centering. Even the concept of what we ingest is a lesson.
"You can ask a lot of little children where a food comes from and they might say the grocery store. But if you can show kids and look at how a food grows, it is much more interesting and an important lesson," Pisani says.
The teachers and students at Hilltop have big plans. Pisani elaborates, "We want to create a native garden, and we want to develop a large area where each group has their own space to tend for. We want to earn another grant to help us get into composting and recycling as well."
So, what did this grant garner these excited, potential green-thumb enthusiasts? Pisani says, "We got lots of children's tools from a set list of items, many seeds for vegetable gardens, flowering gardens, particular colored gardens like a rainbow garden. We received great resource books on learning how to create kids gardens. We got a bird feeder, bird bath, rain gauge, teaching materials about butterfly life cycles, butterfly habitats, big posters, and a worm composting bin, a root box where you can watch the roots at work, an indoor lighted terrarium garden and really just some very nice, expensive equipment they sent us."
As our world is rapidly changing, it is vital to keep learning relative to children and to keep it in the here and now, but to also remember that there is no substitute for getting down on your knees and getting your hands dirty.