It starts with one: Behind the scenes of my school’s outdoor transformation

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Posted May 30, 2015, at 7:46 a.m.

“Mrs. Smith, you want to know what one plus one equals?” I looked down at 5-year old Vincent, face beaming, determined to tell me either way. I glanced distractedly at the rest of the kindergarten class as they settled on the rug.

“Sure, what does one plus one equal?” I asked him, glancing back his way.

“Eleven!” he said proudly, holding up two hands, each with one finger up. I stopped short and smiled at him, suddenly unconcerned about the wiggling students at my feet. Vincent, I knew, was absolutely right.

The power of one plus one is exponential. Our community learned this firsthand five years ago when a landscape architect and a cookbook author reached out to our elementary school.

It was April, 2010. Terrence Parker, a landscape architect, approached our principal with a vision. He wanted to make the area behind South Berwick’s Central Elementary School as engaging as the learning that went on within the walls. He unrolled a grounds plan, pointing out earthen berms, a log walk, a stone infinity path, outdoor amphitheater, water garden, wildflower meadow, birch paths and a wooded area perfect for building teepees and forts.

The estimated cost? $40,000. “We don’t have that kind of money!” said the school board, when asked to approve the idea. But Terrence shook his head. “No,” he said. “I think I can do this entirely through donations of time, talent and resources.” Terrence’s plan received unanimous support.

One month later, South Berwick resident Kathy Gunst, a cookbook author and “resident chef” of NPR’s “Here and Now,” received an invitation from the White House. Michelle Obama was starting a new initiative, “Let’s Move!” and was looking for help. Kathy, along with more than 800 chefs from around the country, was encouraged to adopt a school.

Mrs. Obama’s message that day was simple: Chefs understand food. They have the power to help fight childhood obesity by teaching children how to prepare healthy meals. Kathy met Michelle Obama’s challenge, adopting Central School and committing to help start a gardening and cooking program. Upon hearing the news, Terrence added a hoop house and fruit garden to his plans.

One plus one.

Word got out. A core group of people, including school board members, the business manager and the principal, began prepping the land by pulling the invasive species. Posters were made to promote community work days. Parents brought their children. Local businesses brought their diggers. Skilled laborers spent hours laying down stone, and nurseries donated hundreds of trees and bushes. Families dug holes and planted trees, many taller than their children.

There were smiles, good-hearted teasing and laughter as the day rolled on. More community days were scheduled, and, over time, the landscape began to take the shape of Terrence’s vision. A used hoop house was installed, donated soil shoveled from the back of the truck as pre-schoolers poked in the beds, looking for worms. Soon Kathy’s vision of growing and eating local foods took shape as well.

Teachers brought their students to the hoop house to plant seeds, water, monitor the plants and harvest. Local chefs, nutritionists and parents assisted in cooking classes. Recess transformed into beautiful moments of inquiry, creative play and active imagination. Science turned into “I wonder” as students began to question the natural world around them.

First, community members from neighboring towns began to stop by to see what was going on. Then word spread further, and folks from northern Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts made their way to the school’s outdoor classroom. National radio shows, regional newspaper articles, blog posts and visits from politicians brought more visitors and more attention.

Heads nodded and bubbling conversations started as the visitors began to envision a similar outdoor classroom for their own schools and children. Our impact had grown. We were no longer one plus one.

I see the headlines. I read the articles. Increased standardized testing. Decreased state funding. Budget cuts. Childhood obesity. Children too distracted by devices or so over-scheduled that they begin to live unhealthy lives.

But headlines about students, schools and communities overcoming adversity? I cut those articles out. I share them on Facebook. I discuss them at the dinner table with my family and as I visit with friends.

How do we make this world a little better for our kids? By coming together to create the change we want to see for our kids. When we join together for a common goal, one plus one equals 11.

One plus one plus one equals 111.

Suddenly we are positively influencing children we have never met and changing the headlines in our own towns and beyond.

Go ahead, be the one.

Kate Smith teaches music to grades pre-K to 3 at Central Elementary School in South Berwick. She is the 2014 York County Teacher of the Year.


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