In an age in which screens dominate most students’ daily lives, one local school has found a way to capture students’ attention and convince them to set down their smartphones and tablets — all while immersing them in a natural learning environment. The Learning Garden at Poquoson Elementary School is an outdoor space where students can observe plant and animal life and learn about topics including the water cycle, lifecycles of plants and insects, and the habitat of Coastal Virginia.

The garden is maintained by volunteers from the local Master Gardeners organization, and the gardeners and other community members present educational programs in the space for classes. Recently, Master Gardener Susan Northcutt taught students about the stages of development that Monarch Butterflies go through. When they are ready, the butterflies are tagged and released. Through tracking the tags, students have learned that at least one tagged butterfly made it all the way to Mexico!

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Students observe a chrysalis. When not being used for a class, these are on display in the school's library.

Northcutt was previously the music teacher at the school. She taught for 26 years and decided to come back as a volunteer. She said she loves giving the students an opportunity to learn about nature.

“Kids don't spend enough time outdoors,” she said. “Our goal is to get them outdoors, get him excited about things, and maybe they'll do that at home. They spend a lot of time on their tablets and on their electronics. This is a very non-electronic way for them to engage. It's important for them to come out. It's so fun to see how they get excited.”

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Students answer questions during a presentation by two Master Gardeners.

Principal Kimberly Gryszko agrees. She said the outdoor space has added a large amount of value by allowing educators to offer interactive, hands-on learning.

“Teachers are using the learning garden to enhance their science lessons about plants and life cycles. Right now we have some science lessons about weather and clouds, and the students can even go out there just to make observations of the sky and the clouds outside as well,” she explained.

“The master gardeners are the true heroes right now of our learning garden because they are the ones that are coming out and weeding the garden and tending to the garden,” Gryszko said. “Our Master Gardeners also offer to have the classes come out, and they will share the information they have about the different types of plants that are in the garden.”

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Students see how many caterpillars they can spot.

Teachers also use the space for other classes — such as Spanish or math — to give students a different learning experience and the chance to spend some time outdoors.

Natalie West, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, said she has taken her students to the outdoor space for literacy or math lessons. “The students are out there getting a breath of fresh air, just seeing the world around them, taking in the sights, and getting to learn more about their home.”

She also uses the space to enhance her science lessons.

“Sometimes, even if there's not a volunteer out there, we'll take the students out just to get outside for them to observe,” West said. ”A lot of times volunteers encourage us to take them on nature walks, and they provide us with materials. So in the fall, I take the students out with autumn checklists. They're getting scientific queries and questions about what they're observing, like spider webs, things that we would take for granted.”

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For the students, the space offers the opportunity to not only get outdoors but to get up close to nature.

Everett Behrns, a fifth-grade student, said his favorite experience was watching butterflies develop and then releasing them. “Last year they showed us a caterpillar, and then later, when it was big, it hatched out of the cocoon. Then we put a tag on it and let it fly away.”

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This butterfly was tagged and released.

Makayla Williams, also a fifth grader, said some of her favorite activities in the garden have been seeing what types of animals and trees students could find, and she enjoyed having her Spanish class outside a few times.

“I enjoy learning outside because it's calming. I hear the birds chirping, and it's very cool to learn out there.,” she said.

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