North Trail Elementary garden grows the curriculum
by Jennifer Chick
Dakota County Tribune
Gardening is the perfect fusion of art and science, so while North Trail Elementary students in Farmington are digging in the soil, they are learning not only about biology, but also about the fundamentals of art.
Pam Tycer, art teacher at North Trail Elementary in Farmington, has been encouraging students to look at art and science differently through gardens at the elementary school for the past eight years. The project started with a butterfly garden after Tycer received a grant from the University of Minnesota for a program called Monarchs in the Classroom. She took the class and was fascinated by it.
“It was an opportunity to link art and science,” she said.
Students helped Tycer plant the garden, which is filled with sustainable plants that will encourage monarch butterflies to lay their eggs in the plants. It has been a learning experience for everyone as Tycer has taught the groundskeepers at North Trail Elementary not to pull up milkweed, a plant often considered a nuisance and a weed.
As she walks through the garden this spring, she is delighted to see even more milkweed pushing up through the soil.
The students raise butterflies that are then released in the gardens. Tycer works on art projects that incorporate the butterfly life cycle into drawings.
Once the butterfly garden was started, other garden ideas soon sprouted up. Now kindergarten students plant heads of lettuce that they will take home with them at the end of school. There are tomatoes and herbs, strawberries and carrots.
“Kids need to know where that carrot on their plate came from,” Tycer said.
A rainbow garden, with its hues of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, purples and greens has been added to the palette. Different classes provide the annuals that arch across the garden.
First-grade students bring in yellow flowers, second-graders provide orange, third-graders bring purple or blue, fourth-graders plant red flowers, and fifth-graders finish the rainbow garden with magenta and pink hues.
As they work, Tycer is talking about shapes, colors and textures, ideas they will incorporate into art projects.
First-grade students study Claude Monet, who also planted a large garden. Many of his art works were inspired by his garden.
Fourth-grade students use their skills to photograph flowers and then use those photographs to make chalk pastels like Georgia O’Keefe.
Third-graders paint sunflowers.
Second-grade students follow the butterfly life cycle during a watercolor unit.
“They learn the names of flowers,” she said. “It wakes up an awareness in them that a flower is not just a loop with a bunch of circles around it.”
The students love working in the gardens.
“I’ve had kids say to me, when they go out in the garden, ‘Oh, this is the best day ever,’ ” Tycer said. “And they are just pulling weeds. So many kids don’t have that experience anymore. We need to have that connection to nature. They can’t be afraid to get dirt on their hands. We need to have kids interested in planting and growing things.”
Once school is out for the summer, Tycer relies on volunteers to help maintain the garden. She asks families to sign up to water and weed in the garden for one week at a time.
“Maintaining the garden, keeping it going, that’s the hardest thing to do,” she said. “It would be heartbreaking to see this dwindle down to nothing.”
It would mean lost opportunities for children to exclaim over the baby bunnies who nested in the lettuce patch one year. Or to watch the caterpillars munch their way along a plant shoot. To understand how bees work to help other plants grow.
Fourth-graders Max Bollesen and Ava Johnson volunteered in the garden last summer and enjoyed the experience.
“You get to harvest things to take home,” Ava said.
“It’s fresh,” Max said. “Not like when you get them from the store and they’ve been sitting there for weeks.”
Both students agree that the strawberries are their favorites. North Trail Elementary also has an orchard with apples, plums and pears, planted by an Eagle Scout a few years ago. In the fall, students love searching in the orchard and gardens for tasty treats.
Families that would like to volunteer to help maintain the garden this summer should contact Tycer at email@example.com or call the school at 651-460-1800.
“You’re a natural scientist when you garden,” Tycer said. “It’s all science. And artists think about things just the way that scientists do. It develops critical thinking skills needed for the 21st century. There’s not just one right answer, there’s many.”