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Strawberry Fields Forever
Bringing Education Outdoors
by Eileen Gefell
When an article ran in The New York Times three years ago about a North Carolina school that had transformed its schoolyard into an outdoor learning center -- and the benefits that followed, including a reduction in behavior problems and rising test scores -- many Maplewood parents raced to their local copy machines, and soon the article flooded principals' offices and PTA meetings.

The idea struck a chord here with parents aware of the two and a half acres of dry, dusty land behind Seth Boyden School. Except for a few pieces of playground equipment, and the small beginnings of what will be Strawberry Fields, this land is uncultivated and underused. But all that is going to change.

Marian Buck-Murray, current PTA president at Seth Boyden, was one of those parents. Initially, Buck-Murray said she was amazed by the amount of unused land behind the school. Then she read the article and the idea really made sense for Seth Boyden. But according to Buck-Murray, the project didn't get going until last year, when fellow parent volunteer Lorraine Gibbons got involved. Gibbons also read the Times article, and according to Seth Boyden first grade teacher Tina Lehn, "Lorraine is the inspiration behind us. She has fired us up to work with her to make this happen."

Seth Boyden School is located on what was once the property of Seth Boyden, a prominent inventor and industrialist in the 19th century, after his retirement, Boyden spent his time hybridizing strawberries, and in fact, many of the strawberries we eat today originate from the seeds of his garden. Thus the name Strawberry Fields was given to this large open land, where Seth Boyden School would be built on the site of its namesake's garden.

A few years ago Gibbons, an avid gardener, was instrumental in the renovation of a small plot of land behind the Tuscan School into a student nature center. "I've spent a lot of time in the schools and in the classrooms, and I feel children just dent get enough time outdoors," says Gibbons. "I rake my own children away every summer to ensure their time is spent outdoors. It is something I really value."

The idea of an outdoor learning center at Seth Boyden flourished and Gibbons, whose children were now attending the school, was a natural for the role of project manager. Gibbons and others quickly made contacts throughout the community. They researched and canvassed educators across the region. They met with parents and interviewed administrators, teachers and students. Enthusiasm for the project was indeed extremely high. In the end, the Natural Learning Initiative -- the same firm used by the North Carolina school was brought in to draw up a formal plan for the space, and Strawberry Fields became a reality.

When it is complete, Strawberry Fields will be an outdoor extension of the school's classroom spaces. It will include natural habitats for observing birds, mammals, insects, plants and microorganisms. It will also include a wetland surrounding a small brook which runs along the back of the property, teaching gardens for learning about cycles ofnature, a music garden for outdoor music exploration, and an amphitheater for outdoor performances and quiet places for reading, writing and reflection. There will be picnic areas, play and craft spaces, climbing equipment, walking trails, community gardens and playing fields.

Seth Boyden's mission statement asserts, " The Seth Boyden Demonstration School is based on the belief that there are numerous ways to achieve excellence. The Demonstration School's philosophy supports the belief that each child has his or her own talents and strengths that need to be developed to attain educational and personal excellence. This grows out of the theory of multiple intelligences,' developed by Harvard University's Howard Gardner. "

"The transformation of Strawberry Fields really pulls together all the multiple intelligences the school stands for," says Lehn, "and it plays to Gardneis latest intelligence, the naturalist, which stresses that things take time to grow. Through their involvement the children will see that wonderful things do take a long time to happen, and that is part of being a naturalist. It's a powerful lesson." Lehn credits Gibbons with involving many people with varied passions to determine how the space could be used. "These diverse perspectives have helped to reflect all the different intelligences in each of the learning centers that make up Strawberry Fields," Lehn adds.

Each learning area has a parent leader, teacher liaison, curriculum tie-in and a fund/grant raiser. The planning and implementation will be done in stages over a period of about five years. In fact, a row of trees, aptly named Kindergarten Row, has already been planted by the kindergartners, and last spring the Maplewood Garden Club sponsored the planting of a butterfly garden. "I just cant wait to have quiet, hidden places to read in peace and calm and quietness," says Lehn. "It's so important to show the children that you can curl up under a tree and read a book just as easily as you can on a couch."

According to Gibbons, educational studies of schools with similar programs to the one that is envisioned for Seth Boyden report better performance on standardized measures of academic achievement in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies; reduced discipline and classroom management problems; increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning; and greater pride and ownership in accomplishments.

Much of the vision for Strawberry Fields has come from the students. The children were taken on a "site safari" where they toured the space carrying~s ofthe grounds. They later worked in small groups to determine what they liked and disliked about the space and what they would like to change and add. The results included suggestions such as a wall of beauty, a pond, trees, rock climbing and lots of water Fountains. Gibbons adds, "The children were adamant about the need for shade and that we do something about all that dust out there."

Similar brainstorming was also done with the teachers, parents and the community residents. There has been an ongoing dialogue between the school, neighborhood and community. The residents feel they need a public space for walking, playing or just gathering. It is hoped that Strawberry Fields will become a year-round community space, not just a school thing, with community bulletin boards, welcoming entrances and frequent cultural events.

According to Buck-Murray, funding the project was an overwhelming task, but once the project became certain, the money came in fast from community members, parents and grandparents. The students at Seth Boyden are so eager about thisproject they collected pennies and raised more than $2,000. Gibbons points out that all monies for Strawberry Fields will be obtained entirely through fundraising and grants. The school has not requested or received any funding from the school district or the township.

The drive and inspiration of Gibbons, and the many parents, educators, students and citizens who are dedicated to this project, will surely transform Strawberry Fields into a wonderland the children and surrounding community can enjoy for generations.

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