The education garden at the Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool (2222 N. Kedzie Blvd.) is ready to grow anew after hibernating the long winter. The school recently won an Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Award from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to regrow its nature garden.
The grant will allow preschool students and staff to rebuild the nature garden that suffered for much of the past year because of mandatory COVID-19 closures.
The grant provides funding for the school to buy plants native to Illinois, including wild petunias, stiff asters, butterfly weed and horsemint, many of which are pollinators that attract birds, bees and butterflies.
The school uses the students’ play-based experience in the garden to introduce different concepts from math to reading to nutrition, as the children take part in environmental stewardship that the school seeks to promote.
“We’re big believers in the farm-to-table type of education for kids so they understand the food chain and how important the environment is for all of us,” said Bill Cosper, the director of program and resource development for Smart Love Family Services, which owns the school.
“The kids plant crops, raise crops, prepare the soil. And they do it from the beginning, literally seed,” Cosper said. “They’re not just passively watching it be done. They want to take part, and that is a huge reflection of our whole philosophy, which is addressing the emotional and social development of children.”
And the ecosystem built upon the nature garden plays a central role in the students’ curriculum. “They’re taught what the birds are and what they do, where they come from and why they’re here,” he said.
But many of the lessons are indirect. Rather than formal lessons, teachers instead ask the children what they see, feel and touch.
“It’s amazing how perceptive kids are,” Cosper said. ”And if they’re enthused by something, they take it seriously, and they get really excited about it. And then they get their parents excited about it.”
Smart Love Preschool’s nature curriculum and social-emotional development learning model is important to Emily Lorentzen, whose middle child, Willa, is attending the school after her eldest child graduated from it.
“I think it’s a grounding part of the curriculum,” Lorentzen said. “And I think having an appreciation for nature and our Earth is so important.”
Lorentzen stated her children love the school’s gardens, sometimes bringing home a bounty from the vegetable garden and sharing it with their family. They’ve also gained an appreciation of nature, she said.
“They’re able to see and point out beauty and nature in areas that I wouldn’t, like the planter boxes along the sidewalk or along the boulevards. They’re very tuned into that,” she said.
Lorentzen said the garden program was especially important because they live in a massive city, where nature can’t often be found.
“The garden program really helps them find those little bits of nature in our urban environment,” she said.
Featured photo: The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool