Florida Weekly Column

The Synergy Between Nature and Education

The Synergy Between Nature and Education

Recently I had the opportunity to hear a beautiful speech by Linda McDonald the coordinator of the Buehler Family Foundation Enabling Garden at the Naples Botanical Garden. She was accepting a PBS American Graduate award from WGCU in SWFL.

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation provides support to the Garden and I was inspired to hear how Linda describes the synergy between nature and education. I asked her if I could share her speech here and she graciously agreed. So here you go:

The American Graduate Champions Program was developed, in part, to draw attention to the roles each of us can take to help students succeed and graduate. Pediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom says “the more we restrict children’s movement and separate children from nature, the more sensory disorganization we see.”  In October of last year, Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, wrote about new research showing that exposure to nature correlates with higher scores on standardized tests.  There is more and more research showing the crucial part that nature plays in the development and success of our students.  Fortunately, the mission of Naples Botanical Garden is to connect people and plants! What a perfect combination!

The very design of the Enabling Garden is to encourage and enable everyone to enjoy and interact with plants. Raised beds, water features, wind chimes and specially-designed tools, along with beautiful, non-toxic plants provide the setting for our education programs.

Those programs include field trips about plants, animals and art design for students in Exceptional Student Education Classes, Saturday and summer camp programs for blind and partially sighted children, a career and volunteer awareness program for students with The Able Trust Florida High School HighTech program and the CO-STEP program, which is part of the career education curriculum of Collier County Public Schools.

In each of these classes, students use all of their available senses to enjoy and learn about plants. Of course, first of all, they are surrounded by the amazing beauty of the garden.  But, they also touch, smell, see, taste and listen to the sounds that plants make!  Did you know that a Popcorn Cassia is not only a host plant for our state butterfly, the Zebra, but also really does smell like hot, buttered popcorn, that the leaves of the Red Flowered Sea Grape feel like cardboard and can be used as a plate, that the Peppermint Scented pelargonium feels like velvet and that the coating on the Carnuba Palm frond is used not only to wax your car, but to make jelly beans!?  This is why the plants in the Enabling Garden can’t be poisonous–everyone is encouraged to touch and smell our plants!

The CO-STEP students come to the Enabling Garden during the entire school year to learn basic “come-to-work” skills. During the two years of this program, they have left with many of those skills and a great deal more.  They have learned the joy of digging in soil, planting a seed, tending the plant, harvesting the produce and eating food that they grew themselves!  They have benefitted from the calming effects of nature which makes it easier to accept one another and work together.  Our garden is a place in which they take ownership–Monse loves telling visitors about her sunflowers, Brittany amazed everyone during the Night Lights program, especially her parents, by teaching people how to make sachets with the herbs she helped to grow and dry, and Mitchell tells everyone why it is important to water the plants (if they’re lucky, they don’t get sprayed!)

The research keeps piling up–children NEED nature. We are fortunate in SWFL to have programs like Collier Greens to assist schools and other organizations to create, plant and grow productive gardens.  Some schools even have nature trails.  However, across the country, our frenzy toward test-taking has often forced teachers to spend their time teaching specific facts while too often foregoing recess and other outdoor activities.  Fortunately, we are learning that we can have it all!  Students do better when they spend time in nature, when they dig in the dirt, grow food and work together.  So, now, do your part:  take a child to a park, plant a garden with a child, hike a trail and stop to look under some rocks, or, treat yourself and a child by spending a day at Naples Botanical Garden! Most of all, enjoy and learn about nature yourself, so that you can share your love of this remarkable planet with others–especially children.

Thank you!

Linda McDonald, Coordinator, the Buehler Family Foundation Enabling Garden

Naples Botanical Garden




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