Leal teacher gets a lot of help while building outdoor learning space

URBANA – Everything's coming up zinnias in the new garden at Leal Elementary School.

Starting this fall, the school has its first teaching garden, a classroom-sized plot of land that teacher Linda Zimmerman has cultivated all summer.

"A lot of kids don't play outside anymore," she said. "I've always wanted to try to extend that learning outside."

Students love the green space as well. Only a few minutes after the special needs resource teacher wandered into the garden during a Friday recess, nearly a dozen helpers were watering plants, looking for frogs and watching caterpillars.

"It's better than last year, much prettier," said student Jennifer Olmedo as she waters plants. She can't pick one favorite plant, though. "Everything," she said. "Everything's pretty."

Only a few months ago, the garden was a patch of grass-strewn dirt, pretty ugly, as several students noted. But then Zimmerman got a $500 grant from the school's Parent Teacher Organization (and more from her own pocket) and got going.

She got the soil tilled, blending it to make the area more fertile.The Landscape Recycling Center in Urbana gave compost and mulch.

From the Urbana Farmers' Market, Zimmerman purchased plants galore.

A University of Illinois landscaping student drew up some possible designs for the space that now includes plants like herbs, flowers and grasses, a bridge to walk over and a waterless river to fill with rocks to form a bottom.

Eventually, the elements were in place. As Zimmerman started planting, students, parents and even neighbors kept strolling by to help, including second-grader Gabriel Berti, who eagerly points out the plant he put in the ground as his favorite.

"My mom was very mad because I got very dirty," he said.

Nonetheless, Zimmerman encourages any and all the help the garden can get. "I wanted it to be as kid-friendly as possible," she said. "Not a place where we say 'Keep out.' A place where we say, 'This is yours.'"

As a teacher who often works with students in crisis situations, Zimmerman's already found the space a calming tool for children, as well as a way to get quiet kids out of their shells. "One of my students was getting a little stressed out because it was the first (week) of school," Zimmerman said. "It provided an opportunity to relax, think about something different than the stresses of school.

"It generates so many conversations with kids," Zimmerman said. "One kid was out there one day trying to figure out how we could do an underground solar-powered sprinkler system."

On Friday afternoon, teacher Bridget Maloney brought her second-grade class to the garden for a lesson in plants, insects and animals. "It can be tied to curriculum areas," she said, adding that the garden is "a perfect way to teach 'Respect property,'" a school mantra.

Students Timothy King and Amber Cook took turns tunneling a hole into the ground where a hosta plant formerly in Maloney's home garden will now grow.

"We're putting the plant in the dirt. It's not hard," Cook explained. She's glad of the school's new project, she said. "It makes Leal cooler because it has big gardens."

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