MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Who says children don’t eat vegetables? Let kids pick their own collard greens, then blend the leaves with olive oil, garlic, sunflower seeds, and lemon juice. Voilà: pesto!  Blend kale with apples and berries for smoothies. Sauté collards and carrots with olive oil and salt for a tasty stir-fry.

Greens pesto, kale smoothies, stir-fry, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes – all were served up this fall during Garden Recess at Seth Boyden Demonstration School. Each Friday, dozens of students opted to spend their recess in the school’s produce garden, “Strawberry Fields.” The kids harvested fruits, vegetables, and herbs, pressed flowers, created garden art, and watched nature happen all around them. 

“Seeing the kids want to learn during recess was a blast,” says Elizabeth Ebinger, a parent of three girls at Seth Boyden and a devoted Garden Recess volunteer. One of the greatest assets of Garden Recess, she said, is the school’s head gardener, Maggie Tuohy.

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“That energy of hers is shining,” says Ebinger of Tuohy, who is also a certified elementary school teacher. “She has the magic touch with the kids.”  Tuohy’s four children have all attended Seth Boyden.

Tuohy said she finds inspiration from the children who choose Garden Recess. “There are some students who come to the garden every week simply to make a connection, to talk and play quietly with the adults or other children in the garden. Others love to search in the compost and under rocks and logs for insects, salamanders, and snakes.” Some students run into the garden pull a carrot, paint a picture, or taste some food before returning to their recess play.

Seth Boyden has the largest outdoor back yard space of any school in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. The Strawberry Fields produce garden forms part of Seth Boyden’s Outdoor Learning Center, which also includes an outdoor classroom, a performance circle, a large sundial, multiple play structures, and a host of native plantings and trees.

Garden Recess has been around for over 13 years, reports Tuohy. Shortly after the re-establishment of Seth Boyden as a demonstration school in 1999,  the school’s grounds began to be redesigned, and Strawberry Fields took form. The garden activities have evolved over the years as the parent community has changed, with each set of volunteer parents bringing what they love to the garden and passing along their methods and knowledge.  

Tuohy and Ebinger, who have been at the helm for the past few years, are both Master Gardeners (a designation received after completing an official university extension program).  Their book Recipes for a Successful School Garden: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, inspired by their experience at Seth Boyden, will be released in June 2018.

The Outdoor Learning Center – “OLC” – continues to evolve. In the open-air classroom, which was completed last year largely through PTA fundraising and volunteer efforts, teachers now engage their students on STEAM topics and projects.  On any good-weather day, a visitor here might encounter classes participating in a messy science experiment, exploring changes in the weather, writing at the outdoor tables, or holding a discussion in the performance circle, where a ring of flat rocks provides natural seating.  The outdoor classroom has also become a favorite spot for children to sit, talk, and play during recess.

In early December, architect and OLC committee chairperson Matthias Ebinger will lead a team of volunteers in a project to update Strawberry Fields.  The initiative will replace the current aging garden beds with more numerous, smaller beds that are more easily accessible to student gardeners.  Columbia High School student (and Seth Boyden alumnus) Joseph Badre will help to plan and build the new beds for his Eagle Scout Service Project.

Tuohy, who first pulled a carrot out of the ground when she was 40, hopes that Garden Recess participants will “find joy in their garden experiences – to wonder about what they see, hear, feel and taste.  I want the students to know how to take care of the plants and creatures of our garden so that they’re better able to take care of each other and our planet. I also want them to understand where food comes from and that they can grow the food that they eat.” As the collard pesto and kale smoothies demonstrate, kids are more inclined to try – and like – what they grow themselves.

Another benefit of Garden Recess is the opportunity for parents to see their children in action, and vice versa. Anna and Katja Ebinger enjoy Garden Recess in part because they get to hang out with their mom at school.  Katja, a kindergartner, also liked picking flowers for her family and “painting a fake bird pink with white dots on it!” “Pumpkin-spice sugar and banana-apple smoothies” were second-grader Anna’s favorite Garden Recess treats.

Other projects planned for the near future include the creation of a “nature story trail,” a meandering pathway with informational placards for plants and trees, which will turn the OLC into the SOMA Children’s Arboretum.  The committee, which consists solely of Seth Boyden parents, is also reviewing designs for permanent shades for the outdoor classroom. 

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