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Mayra Ramirez, of Denver, explores plants in a learning garden at Trevista at Horace Mann with her 3-year-old daughter, Lucia Moreno. The family has been actively involved in caring for the school garden all summer. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Whenever Kimbal Musk visits an elementary school to talk to kids about their school garden, he usually winds up introducing at least one of them to a cherry tomato.

“Never is there a time when at least one of the kids (doesn’t say), ‘What is that?’ And I have to say, ‘This is a cherry tomato. Would you like to try it?’” said Musk, co-founder and executive chairman of Big Green, a Boulder-based nonprofit that plants learning gardens at schools across the country.


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It’s a constant reminder of why Musk’s organization does what it does — builds outdoor classrooms where kids, especially those from low-income homes, can trade a desk for dirt and learn about the life cycle of plants and how to care for them.

Even as the pandemic has cast uncertainty after uncertainty on schools across Colorado, Big Green has stepped in to help teachers find ways to keep their students learning in the outdoors — which health experts promote as safe spaces for educators to take advantage of in their lessons.

Another Boulder environmental education organization, Thorne Nature Experience, is also adapting its work to usher as many kids outdoors as it can this fall while also providing childcare in classrooms where students can complete their remote schoolwork.

Much of what students in both Big Green and Thorne Nature Experience programming will learn as school unfolds will be from their surroundings in nature, better connecting them to their identity while also opening them up to a whole new classroom — one more conducive to learning in a pandemic.

Mayra Ramirez, of Denver, investigates a vegetable produced by a learning garden at Trevista at Horace Mann with her 3-year-old daughter, Lucia Moreno. The space gives students an opportunity to learn about gardening and fresh food as well as relate what they’re learning in class to the outdoors. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Keith Desrosiers, executive director of Thorne Nature Experience, describes nature as a teacher for students. The outdoor time that his organization offers kids is “as play-based as it can possibly be.

“We allow children to follow their interests and to be inspired by nature,” he added.

Desrosiers, whose own child lights up when he heads outside, points to countless studies that prove the academic benefits of being outdoors.

Time outdoors, he said, has an “incredible impact on children’s social-emotional development,” which then enables them to be better learners.

As school districts embark on the school year with the pandemic still posing a threat, Dr. Glen Mays, chairman of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy in the Colorado School of Public Health, is a big proponent of schools exploring every possibility to maximize outdoor instruction.

Airborne transmission is “much less likely to take place in an outdoor setting just because the larger volume of air outside,” Mays said.

And in a state like Colorado, the outdoors also often features the added benefit of moving air and, even on a cloudy day, ultraviolet light that reduces “virus viability.”

“All those factors together just disperse and dilute any virus particles much better than the dispersion and dilution that would happen in an indoor setting,” Mays said.

Health and safety precautions, like remaining 6 feet apart and wearing masks, are also a good idea to bring outside, Mays said. With outside air, distancing and masks, “you’re really maximizing the risk reduction possibility.”

From learning to giving

As school districts abruptly transitioned to remote learning this spring, Big Green — which has installed learning gardens at close to 700 schools across the country — rolled out an at-home learning guide where both caregivers and teachers could access ideas about how to move kids’ education beyond screens to the outdoors.

The organization, created in 2011, has had two curriculum tracks, one tailored toward K-8 students and another for high schoolers. While younger students learn about concepts like how food grows and what plants need, older students build skills in entrepreneurship and college and career readiness, with a challenge to design a local food distribution event or business, said Dianna Zeegers, national curriculum manager at Big Green.

The learning is anchored in the school gardens provided by the nonprofit, which also aims to educate children about nutrition and making healthy choices.

In response to the pandemic, Big Green’s new line of programming — Big Green at Home — supports caregivers and teachers in advancing children’s knowledge of food and gardening concepts. 

For instance, whereas a traditional lesson would have students out in a school garden investigating leaves and leaf structures, a remote lesson along those lines could have a teacher in the school garden showing off leaves or send students in search of leaves at home — in the form of houseplants, outdoors and in the refrigerator, Zeegers said.

The organization has made its curriculum available virtually. Students in upper elementary school grades along with middle and high school students can use Google classrooms Big Green has developed to learn in a self-directed way. For teachers who want more of a hands-on role, they might record a lesson for students to watch or use the physical space to hold demonstrations, Zeegers said.

Trevista at Horace Mann’s learning garden was planted during the last school year and has been turned into a giving garden for the community this summer. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Big Green is ready to adapt for schools as they return to in-person learning, she noted. Some schools have inquired about having team members from the organization out in their school garden teaching kids virtually while they’re in classrooms, controlling for movement and contact. Additionally, the nonprofit has produced resources around safety for teachers, with guidance on sanitizing and properly spacing students 6 feet apart in their garden.

Additionally, Big Green has connected teachers through virtual gatherings where they discussed how they were using their school gardens and how they could potentially use them in the fall, Zeegers said.

She encourages schools to expose students to the outdoors, particularly this coming year when school takes on a different look and feel.

“School will be very different this fall when it’s face to face, and so to be able to have a pleasant opportunity during the day to take a break and literally stretch and breathe fresh air and be in the sunshine, that’s just really good for all of our wellbeing,” Zeegers said.

Musk, who grows all kinds of fruits and vegetables with his children at home, shares that same appetite for nature, where he believes students can learn foundational lessons. Among them: the value of caring for a garden. If it’s tended, it thrives, but if it’s neglected, it dies. That, in and of itself, “is one of the most powerful lessons that these kids will learn,” Musk said.

Big Green has also helped many schools convert their learning gardens into giving gardens to feed the broader community, part of an effort to ensure that this crisis doesn’t go to waste — a lesson Musk learned from former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel while building learning gardens for the city’s children.

At Trevista at Horace Mann, a Denver Public Schools elementary school, a learning garden that Big Green created during the last school year became a source of fresh food for community members over the summer. Principal Jessica Mullins said the school focused on having “a high-yielding garden” so that families could come gather produce like peppers, squash and zucchini. The school also set books out in the garden so that families could take home both produce and home summer reading materials.

Trevista at Horace Mann’s plans to use the garden as an educational tool were cut short by the pandemic, but students had gotten their hands dirty in the fall as they helped with the initial planting.

The school had hoped to make “this full-circle connection” about the production of food, teaching students about the cycle from growth through dealing with food waste, Mullins said. The school began composting this past school year.

Mullins sees the garden as a natural extension of the classroom, where teachers can transfer what students are learning indoors to the outdoors. That will happen this fall, even as classes start remotely. As the school plants its fall garden, it anticipates inviting one to two first graders at a time to the school to help. The experience will complement a first grade lesson on different kinds of tools, from those used in a doctor’s office to the types used in a garden. 

But the connection centers on much more than academics.

About 88% of the students at Trevista at Horace Mann qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. And Mullins said her school’s families are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 . She said it’s important for the school to create moments for Trevista families and the broader community to connect, which has been made difficult by virtual communication. 

“We’re going to utilize this garden to provide those moments of connection because it’s so important for us to have trusting relationships with our kids and families,” Mullins said.

The garden will continue to have a dual purpose this fall as a giving garden.

Mayra Ramirez and her family are helping make that happen by volunteering to water the garden each week. On Thursday evening, Ramirez and her 3-year-old daughter, Lucia Moreno, who will be starting early childhood education at Trevista at Horace Mann this fall, roamed the grounds to quench the plants. Ramirez usually helps her sister — who has a daughter of her own at the school — with watering duties, which they began when the pandemic started and the school needed extra hands to keep the garden growing. 

Mayra Ramirez, of Denver, waters a learning garden at Trevista at Horace Mann with her 3-year-old daughter, Lucia Moreno. Ramirez and her family have volunteered to water the garden each week this summer. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Tending to the garden is a way for the family to have their own moments of connection with the school, which Ramirez, 37, and her siblings attended when it was a middle school. Her parents still live across the street.

“Horace Mann is a big part of our community, and we’re always going to be there to support it in any way that we can,” Ramirez said.

But as much as Ramirez gives to the garden, she also gets back a lot — including a sense of comfort and relief during the monotony of the pandemic. While stuck at home, Ramirez said her family knew that every Thursday they would have a chance to go out and water the garden.

“It gave us something to look forward to,” she said. 

She hopes Lucia learns about what community means through their work with the garden and that she comes to “respect the place that gives us food.”

New family memories have sprouted for Ramirez during her time in the garden and she feels close to her community by taking care of it. She prioritizes getting her daughter outside, especially during the pandemic, to show her there are ways to fill a day that don’t involve tablets or phones.

“There’s a world out there that we need to explore,” Ramirez said.

Connecting with the outdoors — and child care

During a typical back-to-school season, Thorne Nature Experience would be preparing to send experts inside schools to supplement teachers’ lessons or conduct field trips with classes with nature as the backdrop.

None of that is possible right now, Desrosiers said. Instead, the organization has reinvented itself in a sense, expanding beyond its mission of exposing young people to environmental education experiences to offer child care to families who need it as they try to strike a balance between work and school.

Recognizing the heightened need for child care so that parents can return to work and help reboot the economy, Thorne Nature Experience has constructed its own set of learning pods, making them accessible to low-income households. 

A Thorne Nature Experience small-group summer camper swings over a creek in Boulder County. (Handout)

The organization has committed its 20 full-time staff members to the pods, with spots available for students in grades 1-5. Seven students from each grade can participate, the majority of whom are attending through scholarships. As of Thursday, 22 kids were slated to receive full scholarships, five receiving partial scholarships with another eight students paying full tuition.

MORE: Wealthy Colorado parents are hiring teachers for private learning pods, leaving low-income students behind

The environmental nonprofit’s child care received far more interest than it can accommodate, so it held a lottery for scholarships and accepted paying families paying on a first-come, first-served basis, Desrosiers said.

The organization created its child care program in a matter of a couple weeks, focusing its efforts in Lafayette, where children with the greatest needs live, Desrosiers said.

Additionally, Thorne Nature Experience has doubled the size of its nature preschool to serve 30 students, opening a second center in Lafayette as many parents were looking for outdoor programming for their preschoolers and didn’t feel safe sending their children to a public preschool or kindergarten, unsure of what school would look like. 

A participant in a small-group summer camp programmed by Thorne Nature Experience in Boulder County holds a toad up for inspection. (Handout)

Desrosiers and his staff will serve families until Boulder Valley School District returns to full in-person classes. He simply wants to connect children to child care, mentors for academic and social-emotional support, any resources they need including food and technology, and the outdoors, of course.

The goal is to get kids outside for at least two hours a day. They’ll be able to build rock dams, play in the mud and explore nature nearby in the Cold Creek Trail Corridor, Desrosiers said.

It’s all part of helping children blossom into “healthy, happy and productive people” who appreciate what the outside has to offer, he said.

“When we get kids outside,” Desrosiers said, “we help them to connect with what is innate and natural for us as well as our surroundings.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...