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Seeds of Renewal: Turning Empty Lot into Nature’s Classroom

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Grand Rapids Public Schools, MI —  First-graders lined up next to an open field, clutching pieces of paper bearing Indian grass seed. The big moment had arrived.

“Now blow!” Alison Googins exhorted them, and seeds took to the air impelled by children’s cheeks. “Awesome! You’re just like the wind! You’re little wind machines!”

On a sunny December afternoon, the students of Ken-O-Sha Elementary School sowed the seeds of a community project that will bring beauty to a bare patch of land next to the school.  

Half an acre overlapping adjacent Ken-O-Sha Park has been tilled to transform idle property into a prairie teeming with native Michigan plants. Plans call for a full acre of plants once an abandoned ballfield is turned under.

The prairie will become an outdoor classroom courtesy of Ken-O-Sha’s staff and community partners that have swarmed like bees around the project. They include an energetic couple from the neighborhood, Blandford Nature Center and a generous truck-rental firm.

Organizers say the prairie will boost learning in science, reading and math while bringing new life to the park.

“It’s just being able to go right outside of our doors and have an area they can go and learn about the plants and the seeds,” said Stephanie Villalta, principal of the 130-student school on Grand Rapids’ Southeast Side. “These kids are going to become experts of their plants, so then they can teach our other classrooms in the school all about them.”

In the process, they could help revive badly polluted Plaster Creek, which winds through Ken-O-Sha Park, and provide nourishing milkweed for monarch butterflies.

Neighbors Saw the Vision

It all started with Alison and Jason Googins, certified master naturalists and neighbors of the school tucked behind woods off Kalamazoo Avenue SE.

The longtime residents were concerned about the health of the neighborhood, the school and the park. They looked at the unused patch of grass and an abandoned ballfield behind the school and asked, why not make a prairie out of this?

Jason started recruiting other environmental activists while Alison talked to her employers at Star Truck Rentals. The owners agreed to fund the initiative, partly because Chief Executive William Bylenga was childhood friends with Mary Jane Dockeray, Blandford’s founder, and grew up playing on that big patch of wild in Northwest Grand Rapids.

Thus emerged the prairie project.  Jason collected seeds and Alison coordinated educational efforts with Janet Staal, an environmental education consultant at Blandford. They plan to involve other neighbors, and have a library, a kiosk and other gardens in mind.

 “We’re trying to be really intentional about engaging everyone and bringing everyone together,” Alison said.

The project was sparked earlier this fall with Ken-O-Sha second- and third-graders visiting Blandford to learn about the plants they’ll be growing. They explored the fields toting clipboards, on which they described the plants, how they support animal life and how Native Americans used them.

“Your school yard will look like this someday,” Staal told the students. “But we need to get the seeds in the ground.” Jason Googins said it was a much better way to learn than when he was in school.  “That curiosity, that learning, you see it in their eyes,” he said. “They get to touch things, they get to hear the sounds and smell things. You learn a lot more.”

Students spent the next month learning more about the plants. In Mary Lou Kosty’s class, third-graders learned how Native Americans used plants for dyes, medicine and tea.

On seed-planting day, her students stripped seeds from goldenrod and peered at them with a microscope. Some watched with fascination or extreme eeew! as Jason Googins split open pods containing the larvae of gall flies that incubate in goldenrod stems.

Nearby, landscape architect Michael Bruggink, who designed the prairie, chatted with Dockeray, Blandford’s founder. She was delighted to see the seeds of nature study she planted some 50 years ago bearing fruit in these excited children.

“It’s just plain simple: Get your feet back on the ground,” Dockeray said, as students scattered seeds on the field. “That’s what we’re doing all of these things for. It’s a simple thing, but we’ve gotten so far away from it, with our thumbs and our devices.

“These kids, they’re going to come out and they’re going to watch this happen,” she added, anticipating the blooms of spring. “And it happens fast.”

Article by: Charles Honey

 

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