Just to make you feel really bad about your grade school experience for a quick sec, can we tell you about the MUD PLAY AREA that Unity Charter School in Morristown, NJ, is building for its students? Yes, mud play area.
“Our primary students never really got to dig in the dirt just to dig in the dirt,” says 2nd and 3rd grade teacher and sustainability coordinator Jennifer Carcich. “It was always like ‘ok now we’re planting so that we can grow something for our cafeteria.’ And here they get to explore a little bit more, make mud pies, get dirty, and also have the garden beds there so that when it is time to learn about gardening per se, they will have that experience also.”
[Cobb bench built by students at Unity Charter School last summer]
The media has been picking up in recent years on the huge importance of creative, expressive, zone-out-and-follow-your-bliss-with-zero-agenda play – especially when done in that restorative and non-judgmental environment that is The Great Outdoors (Richard Louv shout out), and we’re always thrilled to see the research making its way to the schoolyard.
And that’s only a slice of the goodness happening at Unity school. Unity is one of three New Jersey schools collaborating right now with the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program; they’re currently raising funds via ioby to further develop their green space and garden, creating nature trails that will lead to the natural bog on their property, as well as a water system to keep the bog boggy, and a native species living wall to frame their existing outdoor classroom. “Sustainability is the backbone of our school,” says Carcich.
“We’re envisioning it being quiet nature play, with natural blocks, giant jenga, homemade checkers. More of a relaxing outdoor play area. Not necessarily the playground. Some kids want the playground, and running around, things like that, but there are many children who want a more peaceful time outside.”
[Unity students stomp on the cobb for the bench]
The crown jewel of the school’s property, of course, is already in place. Five years ago, when the school outgrew it’s original building and had to relocate, the community left behind a cherished gazebo; when everyone arrived at the new, current site, the kids said that what would really make it feel like home was a new gazebo. And so, last spring, they built their very own cob bench – a long, L-shaped, 20-seater made essentially of cured and glazed soil. It may not look like much to the untrained eye, but oh, dear reader, if you knew how proud its little builders are of their handiwork. The new bench – part of what’s shaping up to be a fabulous outdoor classroom – spent all summer curing, and now that’s its open for business, the kids cannot, truly cannot, get enough.
In fact, when a new student who’d joined the school this fall (post-cobb bench creation) went for his first outdoor classroom experience as a Unity student, and started picking at the edges of the bench with his fingers (who wouldn’t? It’s made of irresistably pickable dried mud), he was met with quite the righteous uproar.
“It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” says an amazed Carcich. “The children were like ‘No! No! We made this!’ It became a whole lesson on how they made the bench, totally different than if they didn’t make the bench, on how they treat materials. They treat this bench like it’s gold, because it’s from their hearts.”
So let this be your reassurance, wonderful prospective donor, that the bog, the new mud play area (come on, how awesome?), the trails, and the new protective living wall to be built around the cobb bench will be treated with all the love and respect they deserve. An involved kid is a responsible kid. A kid with a voice is a responsible kid. And we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Unity students are being given both voice and responsibility in spades.
To donate, or to learn more, check out the school’s ioby campaign page here. Remember: we need all the little stewards we can get.
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Want some more cute overload? Check out what’s sprouting at another of the three NWF NJ eco-schools: Seek Academy, in the South Ward of Newark. There are some beloved seedlings growing over there that may just change these kids’ lives.