Mill Hill Elementary School’s outdoor classroom began as a response to coronavirus guidelines, but it has – quite literally – grown into something much more significant for the community of Fairfield, Connecticut. For Elly Fatehi, the leader of the PTA’s Green Team at Mill Hill, the enthusiasm has even exceeded her expectations. When the PTA president asked if she could lead the creation of an outdoor classroom, Elly knew that she wanted to do more than “just throw down some tree stumps.” Instead, she and the rest of the Green Team created an entire “outdoor ecological learning environment” for the young students. This space, with its native pollinator garden, bird habitat, and vegetable garden was a breath of fresh air for kids who had spent the previous year cooped up at home during lockdown or masked and social distancing at school.
An outdoor classroom
The outdoor classroom is not only an opportunity for kids to spend time outside, but also a chance to teach children and their parents more about the environment, our connection to it, and its impacts on us. For Elly, who comes from a public health background, these lessons are significant not only for the health of the planet, but for the community’s health as well. She has always been troubled by environmental health risks like the impact of pesticides on children or the way cars idling in front of the school affects students with asthma, but now, her work with the Green Team is allowing her to set a positive example. “Instead of going around yelling at people,” she laughs, “I can actually do something – and bring other people along with me.”
And the result of bringing others along with her has been remarkable. Elementary school students have a natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning about their environment. When this enthusiasm has a space to grow, like the outdoor classroom, kids share their new knowledge with their parents, who sometimes have a lot to learn. Elly observes that “adults don’t often make the connection that pollinators are providing them with fresh fruits and vegetables.” By educating kids that “it’s more than just butterflies and caterpillars; it’s your food,” the whole community is able to become more ecologically aware. In Fairfield, this new environmental awareness is having an impact. “I live in a community where it’s very normal to spray pesticides, and now people are starting to reconsider that,” Elly explains.
An inspiration for the community
Less than a year since the project was kickstarted by a Pollination Project grant, Mill Hill’s native plant garden has become a local inspiration. “This garden really put a lot of eyes on us,” Elly shares. “The Green Team was doing a lot of other things but I think what got the community to pay attention was the garden.” Other elementary schools have reached out to learn how to replicate their efforts and there are native plant gardens popping up all over the district. There was so much interest in Mill Hill’s efforts that Elly was able to help collectively form the Fairfield Public Schools Green Team, which brings together parents from different schools who meet monthly to create a more sustainable school system.
Beyond the environmental and physical health benefits of the outdoor classroom, Elly has witnessed the positive mental health impact of the space. “It gives kids a chance to slow down and be in that moment.” Her own children use the outdoor classroom regularly at school and often come home with stories of caterpillars they spotted on the milkweed or the groundhog living under the garden shed. She believes that cultivating a love for nature also strengthens their ability to observe their world. “I call my kids citizen scientists. They found a praying mantis the other day,” she shares proudly. “To do that, you have to really pay attention.”