The Outdoor Classroom at Central School in South Berwick started in 2005 and serves as a great example of a multi-faceted community based project which continues to evolve and make a difference in the education and health of its
PreK-3rd grade students. Volunteer, staff and teacher initiatives were well received and given valuable support from school administration at every step of the way.
Each year they continue to grow different crops to support diverse growing and harvesting experiences, connect the garden to the classroom and cafeteria as well as provide a vital space for outdoor exploration and play for their students!
Here are a few highlights of the projects over the years:
- A series of landscaping projects organized by parent volunteer Susan Joy Sager in 2005 were supported by Central School’s former principal, Vicki Stewart and a group of committed parents. Discounts and donations from local garden and nursery businesses as well as grant money from the South Berwick Strawberry Festival provided the necessary resources for the Flower barrels, perennial gardens, shrubs and trees are planted to enhance the landscape around the school in this initial phase.
- The funding and support from Marshwood’s Superintendent, Jeff, Bearden, the school board and the PTO were essential to creating the Outdoor Classroom at Central School. Together, the PTO president, Tammy Martin, Central School’s former principal, Vicki Stewart, current principal, Dr. Nina D’Aran, music teacher, Kate Smith and Terrence Parker from Terra Firma Landscape Architecture embarked on the huge collaborative project to create an outdoor classroom landscape that would provide students with an orchard, a garden, and a playspace that would nurture a relationship with the natural world and provide a connection to growing and harvesting food for years to come! Kathy Gunst, a local food author and James Beard award winning chef, was also instrumental in getting the program started.
- Taste tests in the classroom encourage students to try new vegetables start in 2010 by Kathy Gunst, a James Beard award winning food journalist and the Resident Chef for NPR’s award-winning show, Here and Now began after she attended Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program intended to inspire chefs around the country to return to their local communities and adopt a school to teach healthy During the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, a new volunteer chef, Ned Grieg, took Kathy’s place as the “resident chef”. He cooked with students using produce fromthe hoop house and fruit orchards as much as possible and supplemented with additional ingredients as needed.
- On March 17th, 2011 the first seeds for the hoop house were planted at the Planting of the Green and the tradition has continued ever since! The kick-off was made extra special by a visit from master gardener, John Forti, the author of the Heirloom Gardener, who planted rainbow swiss chard, curly kale and over a dozen other “green” treats. Since that first planting, Central School students have dined on stone soup, Swiss chard tacos, homemade salsa, fruit smoothies, kale chips, hoop house salad with homemade salad dressings and more, all made from their own hoop house harvest. Grants and donations from local farms enabled them to acquire the additional ingredients needed as well as kid-friendly cutting tools, bowls, pans and blenders.
- The Re-Wilding of Central School project was designed by local landscape architect Terrence Parker, and completed in May 2012 through ongoing community work days. It includes ten elements: a log walk, earthen berms, birch path, infinity walk, outdoor amphitheater, a wooded area, water garden, wildflower field, hoop house and fruit garden and is enhanced by over two hundred trees and bushes!
- In 2018, Central School received a generous grant from Hannaford to promote the ongoing success and vibrancy of our hoop house and Outdoor Classroom. This grant supported several harvest dinners and planting events!
- In 2018 and 2019 the Outdoor Classroom celebrated the end of the growing season with a fall Harvest Festival. Local chef and parent Greg Sessler worked with every class and grade level for a week to create a full meal that was served at a school community dinner event at the end of the week. Students used hoop house garden tomatoes, kale, carrots, and potatoes to create sauces, salads, and roasted vegetables. Over 100 community members enjoyed a meal together at each of these events!
- Over the past five years, the school community has also participated in many Maine Agriculture in the Classroom events that support literacy and agriculture through the Read ME Agriculture program. Programs have included learning about maple syrup, an all school tomato planting event (featuring a read aloud of Tomatoes for Neela book by Padma Lakshmi) and learning about honeybees (supported by an all school read aloud of Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming). Students planted pumpkins and sunflowers in May 2022 for harvest and exploration in the fall when the school community returned. Every student planted a pumpkin seed, every class had a class pumpkin to plant in the school pumpkin patch and every class had a pumpkin! A donation from Maine Agriculture in the Classroom of pumpkin seed planting kits helped get the project off the ground! Third graders used the sunflower seeds to support their science units while many other classes explored the sunflower heads to support experiential learning and fine motor skill development. In 2023, they organized an all school planting of zinnia’s for students to take home to support the bee population.
The Outdoor Classroom Committee currently consists of Denise Joy, Lisa O’Brien, Elizabeth Hoyt and Sigrun Seekamp. Denise Joy has been connecting Central School students to nature for many years, organizing all of the Maine Agriculture in the Classroom events, fairy house making events, and has been essential to organizing and planting each year. Lisa O’Brien is a master gardener and Central School’s Librarian and has been essential to maintaining the vibrancy and annual plantings in the hoop house. She also integrated planting into her library curriculum during the Covid years to maintain students’ connection to planting. Elizabeth Hoyt has also been an essential part of all of the Outdoor Classroom’s planting events for many years. Last year they installed reading stands for students to have a story out on the playground, the mounds, and the woods.
Volunteer work parties have made all the difference to the success of the program over the years. Recently volunteers helped rebuild beds in the hoop house and get ready to prepare for a fall planting of kale and lettuce to use for try-it days in the cafeteria and get our fruit orchard ready for summer. Stay tuned as this vital program continues to evolve!
Want to know more?
- Email Sigrun Seekamp at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook page at Central School Outdoor Classroom
- Blogspot at Central School’s Outdoor Classroom
- Kathy Gunst’s TEDx Talk
- Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move
- Re-Wilding of the Central School You Tube Video
- Hike Through History event, now in its 28th year, teams up Marshwood Middle School’s 7th and 8th graders with Central and Eliot Elementary School’s 3rd-grade students and teachers who work in collaboration with the Old Berwick Historical Society to create a hands-on, engaging learning experience for all through this outdoor one day annual event.