Bird Watching and Bug Catching: Common Ground and New Haven Public Schools Partner to Create Outdoor Learning Experiences

By Jill Keating Herbst
Environmental Education Program Manager

All over New Haven, students are harvesting fresh vegetables from school gardens, observing native birds and butterflies in school yard habitats and learning and playing in new outdoor classrooms.

Edgewood SYH students sing about insects

Second graders from Edgewood school sing a song about insects at the Schoolyard Habitat unveiling.

Common Ground has partnered with New Haven Public Schools to create quality outdoor learning environments that will be used by students for years to come.

Active, engaging outdoor learning has been shown to improve student focus, aid in building critical thinking and help students make connections between classroom lessons and the world around them. While many students only experience enriching outdoor learning on off-site field trips, students in New Haven are enjoying native wildlife habitats and green space right outside the classroom door.

Growing Schoolyard Habitats
Edgewood SYH ribbon cutting

Creating a Schoolyard Habitat is a team effort! Parents, teachers, students school leaders, partners, Mayor Harp, and Superintendent Harries cut the ribbon at Edgewood’s Schoolyard Habitat.

East Rock students and staff enjoy their new Schoolyard Habitat.

East Rock students show off their schoolyard habitat, and a new outdoor exhibit they helped to design, to Georgia Basso from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Yale Peabody Museum incorporated more than a dozen students’ artwork into the final exhibit.

Last week, East Rock and Edgewood Schools unveiled their new Schoolyard Habitats. In partnership with Common Ground, Audubon CT, the Peabody Museum, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, these schools designed spaces to attract wildlife and serve as peaceful learning environments where kids can connect to nature. The effects are immediate and tangible. “We’re already seeing new birds!” said Edgewood second grade teacher Carol Boynton.

A team at each school made up of students, teachers and parents have been working all year on the design and construction of the habitats. Teachers worked closely with Audubon and Common Ground educators to integrate the habits into classroom curriculum and students took field trips to Common Ground where they studied pond life in the educational wetland and hiked to the summit of West Rock to enjoy an aerial view of the Long Island Sound watershed.

Edgewood and East Rock joined three other New Haven schools — Worthington-Hooker, Barnard Environmental Magnet, and Columbus Family Academy — in this schoolyard habitat effort. These three schools are in their second year of learning and growing; this spring, each school added more native plantings and additional teaching elements to the habitats they unveiled last year.

Melissa Gibbons, Common Ground educator and Schoolyard Habitat Coordinator, recalls a second grade student’s experience catching insects:

She found one of the bugs ‘icky’ until she used the guides and identified it as a dragonfly nymph… then, she said it was a ‘cute baby dragonfly!

Planting School Gardens

Members of Common Ground’s School Garden Resource Crew — all students at Common Ground High School — took on paid jobs building gardens at New Horizons (pictured here) and all our partner schools.

Davis Street, King-Robinson and New Horizons High School all partnered with Common Ground this year through Common Ground’s School Garden Resource Center. Now in its third year, the School Garden Resource Center supports schools in creating sustainable garden programs, deeply integrated into students’ learning. The garden committee at each school put in countless hours building and planting their gardens as well supporting teachers in using the educational gardens with students. They join six other School Garden partners — East Rock, Columbus, Conte, Brennan-Rogers, Clinton Avenue and Daniels Schools — all using gardens to teach New Haven students.

New Horizons SYH1

Common Ground’s Tiffany Torres tends to plants at the New Horizons High School garden

Tiffany Torres, a FoodCorps service member who has been at Common Ground since September 2013, has played a key role in supporting these school gardens. She works closely with each garden committee as they build, plant, maintain and harvest their garden. She also taught lessons on food and nutrition, and helped to lead the crew of high school students design and build gardens. “Her visits and pointers have made a big difference…” said Ofer Holtz, garden coordinator and math teacher at New Horizons High School.

Creating Outdoor Classrooms

One of New Haven’s newest public schools, Elm City Montessori School has also partnered with Common Ground to build a rich outdoor learning garden and offer regular outdoor education as part of the their after-school program. Common Ground educators Dishaun Harris and Tim Dutcher have been catching bugs, planting seedlings and digging in the dirt with the Elm City students all spring. The 3 and 4 year old students have really taken ownership of their garden, happily watering and gobbling up all of the peas and beans before school is out.

Common Ground is proud to be part of the work that gets kids from all corners of New Haven outside to get dirty, catch worms and enjoy fresh air even before school is out for the summer. And we look forward to growing these partnerships with local public schools in the coming year!


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