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‘Outdoor classroom’ takes shape in raised garden at Park Elementary
Garden Planting
Student volunteers plant vegetables in the raised garden boxes at Park Elementary School in Great Bend Thursday morning. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO

The seeds of hands-on learning are, literally and figuratively, being planted this summer as a raised garden takes shape on the north side of Park Elementary School in Great Bend. It started coming together this week.

When Park Elementary Booster Club Co-president Brigette Dugas looked at the open spaces, she and the boosters saw more than an empty space – they saw an opportunity to provide for future learners at the school. So, Park teachers and the club approached Principal Phil Heeke with an idea.

“I look for teacher passions and try to get them to incorporate them in the classroom,” Heeke said. “This year I had several teachers approach me about a garden, and how they can use it to enhance social studies, science and math.”

“(The Park Boosters) wanted to utilize all of the resources that the school has,” Dugas said. “We decided that a garden would be like an outdoor classroom, and just a great way for kids to experience hands on learning.”

Heeke said the project has been slowed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but summer school has allowed for progress to be made, and he is excited for the future of the garden.

“It will be a great outdoor learning experience this fall,” he said. “We’re looking forward to future growth in the garden area.” 

And though the initial time line of the project was slowed by the onset of the virus, the vision for the project is becoming a reality. After several earlier work sessions, the raised garden beds on the north and west sides of the school were filled with soil earlier this week, with students coming in to plant the first vegetables in the garden Thursday morning.

The project

Along with a vegetable garden on the north side of the school, Dugas discussed some of the other planned design aspects of the outdoor space.

“It’ll have a sound and water wall and vertical gardens all along the fence. It’s going to be a three foot tall fence and each one of the fence posts is going to be painted as a self portrait by the children. It’s a little like a bunch of children standing around on the picket,” she said. 

“The pond will have a rock lined stream that goes down, and we want to build a system of dams and levees that the kids can control the water flow. Then down in the pond, (the plan is to have) frogs and fish and they can learn all about habitats and life cycles and water gardening,” she continued.

As an outdoor classroom setting, there is also a plan to construct seating on the southwest side of the garden, as well.

She said there is also a plan to have a flower garden on the east side of the school for the younger students, including the kindergartners, to be able to manage, as well.

In addition to providing learning opportunities for students at Park, Dugas said she was able to use the project as a teaching tool in her own home, as well.

Two of Dugas’ children, Aurora and Grayson, both students at Park, and are actively involved in the 4-H program. So she decided to “kill two birds with one stone” and help them with 4-H independent study projects throughout the design and construction process of the garden. Both have been active in the design and building process. 

The Long-term vision

As the project begins to take shape, Dugas discussed the Park Elementary Booster Club’s long-term vision for the space as a multi-faceted learning tool for students.

“There’s just so many skills you can learn from gardening,” Dugas said. “We want this to be a very kid-focused garden where they are in there getting their hands dirty, and just being able to see the results, as fast a Mother Nature allows.”

She sees the garden as a tool not only to teach science, but a wide range of other life and learning skills, as well.

For example, she said, one plan is to have the sixth grade class spearhead building and troubleshooting a natural irrigation system, and how to get water from rain barrels to the raised gardens. There are a lot of options, and the desire is for the students to take an active role in planning, building and caring for the garden.

The Booster Club has been holding volunteer construction nights on Tuesday nights, and even in that process there have been several kids out with the adult volunteers helping out, learning valuable life skills in the process, she said.

The eventual goal, she said, is for the garden to be student-directed and maintained.


Community support

As Park Elementary Booster Club began to put the plans for the garden into motion a few months ago, Dugas said community support for the project was plentiful.

She said the boosters applied for several grants, and have received, to date, $3,444 in grant funding, including: 

- A $2,000 Outdoor Wildlife Learning Sites (OWLS) Grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, which according to the KDWPT website provides funds for “an outdoor environmental/wildlife laboratory, at or near a school, consisting of one or more native habitat features.”

- A $680 grant through the Golden Belt Community Foundation from the Kansas Health Foundation Children’s Health Endowment Fund.

- A $500 grant from the Scott’s Miracle Gro Foundation.

Beyond the grants, she said several local businesses were eager to support the idea after hearing about the project.

“The response far exceeded our expectations,” Dugas said. “The community has really rallied both on a business level and an individual level. People have been incredibly generous with their time and materials.”

Anytime there’s been a need through the course of the project, she said, there’s been no shortage of people willing to step in, whether it’s purchasing materials, seeds and plants, or volunteer labor building the garden and digging postholes. 

The support has been so plentiful, in fact, through grants, community support and booster club fundraisers, that she anticipates they have enough not only to complete construction of the garden but to have an initial budget with which to begin maintaining and operating the garden, as well.

The work to see the garden come to fruition, she said has been a team effort.

“We have an incredible Booster Club and lots of parents who are willing to lend their time to come out each week and work on this project,” she said.

Garden Rendering
Pictured is an initial hand-drawn rendering of the raised garden layout at Park Elementary School. - photo by COURTESY GRAPHIC
Tilling the garden
Two students till one of the raised garden boxes outside Park Elementary Thursday morning.