On the afternoon of Rieke Elementary's first Garden Club meeting in mid-April, coordinator Lauren Rosenstein focuses on getting to know the students and settling them in for the weeks ahead.
At the start of the club, the kids regroup from the school day, eating snacks and running around to expend that late-afternoon energy. Some repose on a large log or carpet squares atop the soggy grass.
While they finish up their snacks, a hummingbird buzzes by to sip from the flowers of a large bush in the middle of the garden.
"Did you know hummingbirds stay through the winter?" Rosenstein asks after pointing out the bird. "Did you guys see any flowers at all this winter?"
"I did!" one child responds.
Soon Rosenstein and the young students turn their heads upward to check out the cloud patterns. It's just rained, then hailed, then rained again, but right now the sun peaks out and baths light onto the garden. Rosenstein points out a cumulonimbus cloud, saying she expects one more burst of rain.
The garden, which grows behind the trailer classrooms of Rieke Elementary in Hillsdale, is Rosenstein's living, breathing classroom. She runs The Green Schoolhouse, a nonprofit that provides in-school and after-school gardening programs as well as summer camps for young students in the Portland area.
Rosenstein started The Green Schoolhouse about five years ago when she was working in a Portland preschool as the garden specialist and thought she could do more to integrate gardens into early childhood education. She decided to start a gardening summer camp.
"I saw the relationship between children and their food, and children and their direct contact with dirt, and how that changed their perception of what it was they were eating and of their adventurous personalities," she says. "If they grow it themselves, they're more likely to eat it."
Rosenstein has a master's from Portland State University in leadership for sustainable education programming. It was in the program where she developed the camp, which later expanded into school programming.
Cindy Devine, a parent volunteer from Rieke Elementary, is happy her students will have a role model like Rosenstein to look up to in the realm of environmental education.
"I think children are innately drawn to interact in nature," Devine says. "I think it lays a lot of groundwork for the future development of their interests in the environment and being outdoors, and having that be a natural thing for them to do."
Devine spent the past six months coordinating with Rosenstein and school administrators to get the after-school club off the ground. She was motivated to contact Rosenstein after PPS cut the position of a science enrichment instructor, who had taught kids to work in the Rieke garden as part of the school curriculum.
"My motivation was to not completely neglect the space, and be able to use it in some capacity," Devine says. "My hope as a parent would be that next year, we'll have opportunities to build upon The Green Schoolhouse to incorporate garden and outdoor education into the school day curriculum again."
Learning garden 'magic'
Rosenstein uses the tactile environment to get students engaged. She'll have them tasting edible plants, climbing trees and digging in the dirt. And when in doubt, she'll sprinkle in a little magic.
"Magic is the thing that really brings students in," she says. "Magic is real in a garden; it's really interesting to see a tiny little seed grow into a giant tree. And depending on the age group, we have some fairies and gnomes that come out to play."
Rosenstein's background in early childhood education informed her flexible, playful attitude toward teaching in the garden. She says early childhood educators have to be able to think on their feet and "switch gears at the drop of a hat." In that vein, she tries to incorporate what the students are learning in other subjects into the garden curriculum.
At another school where she works, the students were studying space. So Rosenstein had the group discuss growing lettuce on the international space station and attempt to grow lettuce upside down.
"There's always a way to bring the outside to all of the things that we're learning," Rosenstein says. "I think we've just gotten so far away from it because we're so concerned with meeting core in a standards way."
She loves working outside with kids, even during hard weather conditions like what this winter brought.
"It's real life, so you turn it into that learning experience and it works," she says.