“It’s good for shade, sitting with friends and talking or play games. Or you can sit by yourself and write something personal in your diary,” said eight-year-old Gabby while talking about her experiences in the River Garden at Seaton Elementary School (1503 Tenth St. NW), a District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) school that serves pre-K3 to fifth grade in the Shaw neighborhood.
For Seaton Principal Suzanne Peters, those are important benefits of the rocky, plant-filled space. The River Garden is one of two garden plots on the school yard, emblematic of the school’s emphasis on health: of individual students, and of the earth.
Gold Standard of Health
The two gardens are a central part of the school’s environmental education, which teaches students to care for the earth, the city and themselves. “We’re one of DC’s healthiest schools,” Peters said. In fact, Seaton Elementary is one of America’s healthiest schools, recognized with gold status in 2016 by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
The gardens are visible through the windows of her office. The oldest, a school garden that grows vegetables, trees and flowers has been on school grounds longer than anyone in the building can recall — probably more than twenty years. The newest addition to the school grounds is a river garden installed through the District Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) River Smart Grant Program, was put in just last summer and has already become favorite student hangout.
“So, we’re very thoughtful about what our students are doing for wellness, including physical activity but also food, and that piece comes in the garden as well,” said Peters.
Seaton partners with City Blossoms, a District non-profit that helps create healthy communities
by developing child-centered green spaces. The non-profit provides a food corps volunteer who uses the ‘Nature Works Everywhere’ curriculum. The curriculum focuses on teaching students to care for the environment and building sustainability and connections between themselves and the environment through lessons in recycling. City Blossoms also leads garden work and provides lessons outdoors in warm weather and indoors in the winter.
This summer, three Seaton teachers also attended a summer professional development program at the Washington Youth Garden to better learn how to create a culture of environmental learning in the school.
“We’re very fortunate at Seaton that we have people that are passionate about this work and have taken it on over the years, even as teachers leave,” said Peters.
A Space to Learn
Second grade Seaton students Sophia and Gabby say that they learn a lot in the garden, where they plant and nourish flowers, fruits and vegetables. They grow food such as strawberries, tomatoes and onions, which they sometimes snack on and sometimes take home. Gabby said when she brought onions home and her mother made cabbage soup with them.
They also learn about nature. “There are worms in the digging bed,” said Gabby, “and when you scream and you’re holding the worms they can hear you even though they don’t have ears, but they can hear the vibrations and they sometimes get scared.” Sophia said that when a worm died, they named it Wormy and had a funeral for it, burying it under a tree in the garden.
The river garden is a place where students can appreciate nature, said Peters. It provides permeable land, providing an area to filter the pollution from rain water before it flows back into the river. It also provides an environment for new insects on the school grounds, in addition to helping to keep the river clean. Sophia and Gabby say it is a great place to sit in the shade and talk with friends, playing games. Sometimes they meditate there, or write in their journals.
Environmental education is a collective effort at Seaton, Peters said. The school put a lot of work into qualifying as one of the four schools to qualify for the river garden program. “We worked very hard for a long time to get that,” she said. “It took a while to make sure the space was right.”
She said that the gardening program depends on the leadership of the school’s teachers. “The teachers need to be really passionate about this work, and we’re really fortunate that we have a few that are,” she said, noting that the teachers facilitate garden club after school and weekly community gardening hours with neighbors.
Back to the River
Student environmental education is enriched by the school’s relationship with the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), which offers programs that match school curriculum with hands-on environmental education geared towards imparting a sense of stewardship over the river in students.
Sophia and Gabby took part in the AWS program last year, in grade two. The program focuses on pollinators, a cornerstone of the DCPS grade two science curriculum. During the three-part AWS program, students first take a tour of the Anacostia River on one of the AWS boats. They then spend some time in the classroom, nurturing and learning about plants native to the area. A few weeks later, they return to the river to plant what they have grown, and to build a beehive that they can then take home with them.
“We want to connect and reconnect people to the river,” said Ariel Trahan, AWS Director of River Restoration Programs. “So we want to not only educate them and engage them in the project, we want the to be part of the restoration and to instill a constituency of people that care about the river and will keep it clean.”
Neither Gabby nor Sophia had ever been to the shores of the Anacostia before the tour, they said. Both students say the trip was enjoyable for both themselves and their families, some of whom came along for the ride. Gabby said they particularly enjoyed being splashed by a heron as it dove into the river beside their boat.
The students learn about the wildlife and about the river and its relationship to the school yard, and to themselves. Sophia said that they learned about the liter they saw along the river, and how it could make the heron that splashed them on the tour sick, as well as the relationship between litter and the health of both the river and the earth.
For Peters, learning about the environment is spaces where they enjoy nature is part of Seaton’s plan to educate the whole child.
“I think it helps to make them happy,” Peters said, “and that’s so important.”
Seaton (1503 Tenth St NW) serves students in from Pre-K 3 to grade 5. Learn more about the Anacostia Watershed Society and District Department of Energy and the Environment programs and about Seaton Elementary School by following the links.