St. Dominic School students maintaining a Wildlife Federation-certified garden

By Alyssa Nuehoff

There are numerous headlines in the news each week about the state of the environment, the need to plant more trees, and the necessity of increasing sustainability.

While most articles seem to be negative, pushing fault on people across the earth, there are the occasional ones that present new inventions and devoted people and give hope. There are many ways in which to learn about and care for nature, whether it be in a large or small way. Amanda Carr, third-grade teacher at St. Dominic School in Kingsport, is teaching just that to students of all ages. She is showing them by example how to care for all of God’s creations.

What started as an idea for small outdoor projects to demonstrate different aspects of nature to the elementary children at St. Dominic has grown over the last four years to become a National Wildlife Federation-certified Schoolyard Habitat.

The St. Dominic School garden is a bright spot in downtown Kingsport.

In order to certify a garden, it is necessary to confirm the presence of several elements. These include food, water, cover for animals, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. The goal of creating these habitats is to assist in the creation and restoration of wildlife habitats. According to the NWF, the Schoolyard Habitats, “which create and restore wildlife habits on school grounds while providing outdoor classrooms for learning across the curriculum,” are a fantastic way to teach young children about the nature around them.

Ms. Carr’s enthusiasm for helping wildlife and growing gardens has been the driving force behind the development in the schoolyard for the last four years.

“We’ve been adding on to it every year bit by bit. It’s been a long progression of various little projects coming to fruition,” Ms. Carr said of the development at the school.

She described the learning process as slow as they discovered their green thumbs. Now, St. Dominic’s garden has everything from fruits and vegetables like corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and various melons to flowers like coreopsises, black-eyed Susans, and 10-foot tall sunflowers.

The main goal of St. Dominic’s certified habitat is to help monarchs and other pollinators on their journey. The monarchs are attracted to a native flower.

“We have two types of milkweed. We have a native milkweed and a tropical milkweed. It is definitely like chocolate cake for the monarchs. They love it. They absolutely love it,” Ms. Carr said.

The tropical variety is not perennial and must be replanted each year, but the native milkweed is perennial and plentiful.

The abundant number of flowers and flowers on plants that produce food means the natural area attracts many bees, butterflies, and birds.

Since its start, the number of gardeners attending to the habitat has grown.

“Even our 3-year-old and 4-year-old preschool classes have a little spot in the garden,” Ms. Carr said.

While their abilities and knowledge in the garden may vary, the students all have the opportunity to learn something about the nature that surrounds them. The “touch and smell garden” is one way that they are able to learn.

“A lot of times kids are told to stay off the grass, to not mess up the landscaping, or to not touch the flowers. We’re actually encouraging them to touch and smell them and interact with all of the plants,” Ms. Carr said.

Many of the plants in this section have unique qualities that excite the younger children. Some smell when you touch them, while some are soft or have a distinct texture.

For the older grades, Ms. Carr said, “we try to have the kids do everything.”

Everything they do in the garden fits with the curriculum of each of their classes. Math is used to calculate and measure the materials in order to build raised beds, and science in order to learn what nutrients are necessary to grow the plants.

The children even raise monarchs from the caterpillar stage. While there is not as much to do in the winter, the teachers of St. Dominic have found numerous ways to teach class using the natural habitat.

The benefits of the schoolyard habitat are diverse. Besides helping pollinators, the foods that are grown are used to feed classroom pets and people.

With the growth in the garden, the support for this project has also grown. Besides having the support of the principal, Darlene Lyons, as of the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, it was also important to have financial support. Organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution have donated money that has gone to support major changes in the garden like the building of a greenhouse.

Although the project started small, and there was a large learning curve, Ms. Carr has been impressed with the results.

“I think we have it down to a finely tuned machine; everything is getting tended to and taken care of,” she said.

Ms. Carr’s goal is to “appreciate God’s creation and take care of it. I think we’re in an age where everything is screen-based, and we tend to neglect what is natural to the earth. This is where we come from; this is where we live; this is what God has given us to sustain us.”

The children are amazed by the results of the garden.

“It almost seems like magic to them… I want them to be comfortable and to know that this is our environment; this is our planet; and we can take care of it,” Ms. Carr said. “It’s not some far-off science that we don’t understand. It’s as simple as caring for the plants and wildlife in your little corner of the world.”

This integration of school lessons with learning while submersed in nature will have a great impact on the education and appreciation of nature for these children.

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