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The Garden of Dreams: Growing the Impact of Environmental Education

A catbird nests near a quiet waterfall, an earthworm wriggles beneath a log, and children sit in the shade of a peach tree. This paradise is not a botanic garden or a camp in Bear Mountain--it's a learning garden in a Manhattan public school courtyard known as the Garden of Dreams. Under the direction of The Horticultural Society of New York, this oasis was designed and installed by PS 57's third graders in East Harlem. HSNY's GreenTeam (our work force development program) built all elements of the garden including three 1,200 square foot cast stone planting beds and created a free-form waterfall. Every bit of soil was hauled one wheelbarrow at a time through the school's hallway and into the central courtyard where the 9-year-old environmentalists then planted and created the habitat.

We like to think of this garden as an example of how HSNY's environmental education evolved. No longer abstract or textbook taught, this environmental immersion brings live, dynamic, and accessible aspects of learning "to their own backyard"....a "backyard" where our urban children, living with little or no green space, or with limited opportunities to visit natural areas beyond the city, will gain an understanding of the role they can play in their environment.

The garden is a living laboratory for observing plant life cycles and studying the role of plants in urban cooling, reducing air particulates, and as a habitat for animals. Third graders meet with an HSNY educator once a week for hands-on experiments and garden maintenance. Students develop process and inquiry, writing nature poetry, cooking vegetables, transplanting, making water color paintings, fertilizing, recording weather changes and maintaining their garden.

In addition to the Garden of Dreams, HSNY built an outdoor classroom that serves as a surface for a rainwater system that was installed by GrowNYC and funded by Rodale's Waterworks Project. The rainwater--a free resource that would otherwise go down the drain--is stored in a 200-gallon cistern. These precious drops of water are transferred into small watering cans and poured at the base of each plant. Taken as a whole, the Garden of Dreams, the outdoor classroom, and the rainwater harvesting project is a comprehensive, sustainable ecosystem rarely found in any public school, let alone one in the middle of East Harlem.

Our rainwater harvesting system was the focus of a training program for the school's teachers. They explored ways to conserve tap water. Support from the Catskill Watershed Corporation, in partnership with New York City Department of Environmental Protection, allowed HSNY to engage teachers with training workshops, team teaching in the garden, and a water conservation curriculum challenge. Each classroom teacher competed for a "water saver" award by creating a dynamic lesson. Three selected projects featured an illustrated pop-up book; stormwater abatement cartoons in Spanish and English; and gorgeous, colorful images of water as rain, for drinking, for swimming in, and for life. To date, 60% of the school's teachers participated in our training and 100% of them (from pre-K through grade 8) will be reached by 2011.

With a three-dimensional approach to learning, HSNY will reach over 3,500 students, teachers, and community neighbors. Our long-term goal is to effectively initiate changes in personal actions through conservation education in this school community—starting with the teachers, then the students.

We want to ensure that everyone learns about the distance water travels and appreciates what's involved in having clean, drinkable water so readily available. In this way, the PS 57 community will be motivated in the long term to actively conserve water as a personal choice and that this eventually becomes an automatic, unconscious response.

The Garden of Dreams feeds the full body of the school community—its brain, blood, and soul. Please feel free to experience the project for yourself, on East 115th St. between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, in the heart of New York City's urban jungle.

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