Pre-K students at St. Thomas More School in Omaha take turns last school year holding a Monarch butterfly in the school’s Outdoor Nature Classroom and Learning Garden. As one the many activities designed to teach children about nature, students get to observe the butterflies throughout their entire life cycle – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly. Students also get to plant and cultivate a garden and learn how to care for the environment. COURTESY PHOTO

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Learning Garden helps students appreciate and care for God’s world

What was once an unused patch of land on the west side of St. Thomas More School has become a place where students can experience the wonders of God’s creation firsthand.

Ask Henry, a pre-K student at the school, what he likes best about the Outdoor Nature Classroom and Learning Garden, and he will tell you it’s the butterflies. He adds that Monarch butterflies don’t hang around the Learning Garden long because they “Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go to Mexico!” during their annual fall migration.

The Learning Garden provides students with a reprieve from too much screen time and sitting at desks. Being outside, according to research, also helps children combat issues such as eye strain, Vitamin D deficiencies, depression, anxiety and so much more.

The Learning Garden is the brainchild of St. Thomas More’s preschool director, Tamyra Hower. Hower also enjoys the butterflies, but her favorite thing about the Learning Garden is the positive impact it has on students.

“It is so important for their health, it’s important for their eyesight, it’s important for their mental health, not just their physical health,” Hower said.

“Take them outside and everything changes,” she said. “It evens the playing field for kids with things like ADHD who can’t sit still in a classroom, but you get outside, and it’s OK if they make a little noise because everything else is noisy.”

While the Learning Garden is primarily used by preschoolers, other grades are using it as well. Hower is working hard to make sure every teacher feels comfortable using the Learning Garden and knows that it is an outdoor classroom, not a play space.

The impact of the Learning Garden is being felt by more than just students and teachers. Leslie McDonnell, an administrative assistant at the school, said good things are happening throughout the parish because of the Learning Garden.

“It’s beautiful because it is having a ripple effect, I think, on families,” McDonnell said. “It is bringing the community together.”

McDonnell said that she is now doing more recycling at home and plans to try composting. The school’s cafeteria now composts and recycles, thanks to a commitment by the lunchroom staff.

‘A COMMUNITY PROJECT’

While McDonnell insists that Hower does not give herself enough credit for the Learning Garden, Hower said she is the dreamer and coordinator, but others do much of the work. She maintains that without their guidance, inspiration and hard work, the idea for the Learning Garden would have remained just that – an idea.

The Learning Garden began to take shape outside of Hower’s own mind when Sarah Vanek, a school parent and “Education + Outreach” manager at Mulhall’s, an Omaha garden center, invited Hower to a class on outdoor learning spaces. When Hower told Vanek about her idea for a Learning Garden, Vanek was immediately onboard and came up with a design.

A couple enrolling their first child in preschool saw Vanek’s design on St. Thomas More’s website and offered to pay for fencing around the Learning Garden. That was when things really started rolling.

“That was the big hold-up for me,” Hower said. “I didn’t want to start doing other things and have them stolen or have kids get hurt.”

Once the fence was up, others quickly got involved. Volunteers picked up and delivered truckloads of mulch. Tree stumps were cut and donated, and people tracked down wooden spools to use for tables. Still others cut and sanded the spools.

Magnifying stations that Hower had on a “wish list” were paid for and installed. A life-size abacus is on its way, a music station is going in, concrete is being laid for wheelchair accessibility.

“We just have more and more people who keep stepping forward,” Hower said. “It is really a community project.”

A pancake feed is planned this spring to benefit the Learning Garden. Students and parish organizations are raising money, and Hower writes grants to foundations and businesses that may be interested in supporting the project.

A BROAD IMPACT

Hower plans on starting a garden club in the spring. She hopes that older parishioners who don’t have kids in the school will gather one Saturday a month to help with the upkeep of the Learning Garden.

Even local businesses are benefitting. Many of the plants for the Learning Garden were purchased from Midwest Native Nurseries in Lincoln. St. Thomas More is now a compost drop-off site for Hillside Solutions composting company. This earns St. Thomas More a monthly discount on its composting.

Hower believes that the Learning Garden could help attract more students to St. Thomas More.

“You have a person who might come for the compost drop off-site, and when their grandkid or child is looking for a school, who knows?” Hower asked. Visitors to the school also might notice kids working in vegetable beds growing Brussel sprouts, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli and more.

“Seeing the kids picking vegetables or planting, those things they don’t normally get to do at school, it’s huge. And they love it,” she said. “They’re learning about the environment and things they can do at their own homes, whether it’s recycling and composting or whether it’s having their own garden and collecting their own seeds instead of buying a pack of seeds.”

But more than anything else, the Learning Garden is about giving students a place to come and experience God’s world.

For the younger kids, that means choosing a “sit spot” that they return to each time they visit the Learning Garden. Observing nature from the same spot allows them to understand what happens to a particular tree or plant when the seasons change. Some children choose to sit by the flowers to enjoy the butterflies. Wherever they decide to sit, Hower tells them to look with their eyes, listen with their ears, smell with their nose, and touch things.

“It’s a really, really great opportunity for kids to just slow down because our kids are always on the go,” she said. “And they aren’t so great at focusing anymore and this is a problem. When they are in their sit spot, they are encouraged to look at the things around them and beyond.”

Hower recalls a story she heard from the junior high religion teacher who took her students to the Learning Garden this fall. The teacher told her students that they could pray or journal. After one student was finished writing, she quietly shut her journal and made the sign of the cross.

The teacher told Hower it was the most beautiful thing to watch and that when they returned to their classroom, the students were all calm.

 “And that is what I’ve seen with my kids after they’ve been here,” Hower said. “They’ll just be calm.”

To learn more about the Outdoor Nature Classroom and Learning Garden, visit https://25689.sites.ecatholic.com/st-thomas-more-learning-garden.