Schools in urban environments frequently have meager amounts of green space that can be utilized for outdoor learning. The National Inventor’s Hall of Fame® Middle School…Center for STEM Learning in Akron, Ohio was faced with exactly that challenge. The school is in the heart of downtown Akron, surrounded by concrete, traffic, buildings and even an active rail line. That did not stop teachers Christine Justiss and Sam Crews from creating a “wilderness experience” on the roof of a parking deck that forms the primary outdoor space for the school.

The “wilderness” was created by cleverly building three serpentine mounds on the site. To achieve a feeling of height, soil was mounded to a height of approximately two- and- a- half to three feet in height. Paver stone pathways were then placed between the two mounds. The school has an established a partnership with the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park which provided native plant species for the mounds.

The result after only one growing season was spectacular! The mounds that were topped with tall native plant species had enough height to give the effect of walking through a densely planted area. Students definitely get a sense of being in a different place. The area provides an excellent venue for reflection, scientific drawing and observation, soil testing and monitoring.

As Christine and Sam reflected on their efforts, several thoughts came to mind. Although the two teachers were definitely key planners and catalysts for the project, they quickly emphasize the importance of soliciting both student and staff input very early into the project. This support often translates into donations of time and effort that are vital to the success of any project. To maximize usage in the future, the “wilderness area” project needs to be embraced by many teachers and multiple content areas. Administrative support from the very start is essential. In the case of this project, a community partnership with the national park provided expertise as well as plant material. As usage of the outdoor space increases, there also is a need to have clear protocols in place for allergic reactions to bee stings or other potential concerns.

Three foot dirt mounds were created with a paver path in the middle.

Dirt mound were created with a paver path in the middle.

After one growing season native plants have created an arch over the pavers.

After one growing season native plants have created an arch over the pavers.

A close-up view of the mini wilderness.

A close-up view of the mini
wilderness. Add a few logs for seating and you have a great reflection spot!

What makes the “wilderness area” so useful is its tremendous versatility. It can be used by most any content area. Some universal process skills that can be taught using this area would include:analyzing, observing, describing, comparing, contrasting, organizing data, hypothesizing, inferring, etc. Although science activities often are the first to come to mind, there are concepts in all disciplines that could be emphasized in the “wilderness area.”

The idea of using elongated dirt mounds planted with tall native plants can work well on any site. A green retreat can be easily created on a lawn as well as on concrete. Be sure to get advice from a nature center or Master Gardner about the best plant species to place in your wilderness area. You want height and plant diversity. It’s also a good idea to avoid plants that would be attractive to bees during the months that you would be using the area. Simple seating such as logs or small benches adds to the usefulness of the area.

Give it a try! Even a small area with diverse plants can create a feeling of being in another place.

Copyright © 2014 by Herb Broda