In October 2010, I attended the TAEA (Texas Art Education Association) Conference, where I had the opportunity to meet two fascinating art educators—Kim Bierwith and Genifer Best. Being nature enthusiasts, Bierwith and Best had met several years prior at a professional development workshop at the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Although both educators taught art within a traditional public school setting, they were motivated to incorporate more outdoor learning into their curriculum. After the workshop in Jackson Hole, Bierwith and Best remained in contact, sharing ideas and motivating one another to apply the things they had learned from the Teton Science School.
During their presentation, titled “Exploring the Outdoors Through Art II,” Bierwith and Best relayed their experiences as they built their own gardens and nature-rich areas to encourage experiential learning in their art classes. Through donations and a partnership formed with the Texas Master Gardener program, the art students from a traditional public school in the Houston Independent School District were able to turn old, abandoned tennis courts into a beautiful garden. Once the garden was operational, students began to create artwork to decorate the garden and the surrounding neighborhoods were invited to participate in community gardening days during the weekends.
Built natural environments, such as the gardens created by Bierwith and Best’s students, while requiring dedication, fundraising, and networking on the part of the art teacher, are excellent ways to encourage experiential learning. Moreover, they foster a positive sense of place, as students invest their time and energy into beautifying their school grounds. For art teachers wishing to build their own school garden, there exist numerous resources. Master Gardener, as mentioned by Bierwith and Best, is a national volunteer organization that assists with garden lectures, exhibits, demonstrations, school and community gardening, phone diagnostic service, research, and many other projects. This group, as well as others like it such as “Roots and Shoots” and BRIT (Botanic Research Institute of Texas), provide a wealth of information and assistance to teachers wishing to create a garden on their school grounds. Websites such as RealSchoolGardens.com offer fundraising support and instruct educators in the best approaches to planning and building a school garden.
In addition to these resources, many authors have published books regarding the construction of environments to promote outdoor, experiential learning. Robin C. Moore and Herb H. Wong’s Natural Learning: Creating Environments for Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching describes a schoolyard’s transformation from a large asphalt wasteland to an engaging and inspirational environment, nicknamed “The Yard.” At the end of the book, Moore and Wong provide curricular suggestions and resources for educators or schools wishing to create a similar environmental space.