By. Naomi Hershiser, Dean of Environmental Learning, Prairie Crossing Charter School (Illinois)


Second graders pull carrots from the soil, comparing sizes and shapes with each other as they unearth the orange roots.  They enjoy the fresh crispness of their just-harvested bounty at snack time.  Third and fourth grade students sit on the ground outside their classroom, surrounded by grasses and flowers, sketching and describing the phenological changes they observe in their nature journals.  Seventh grade students peruse a seed catalog, trying to determine which crops they can plant in late summer for a fall harvest after they have picked and pickled the cucumbers in their garden.  The school year starts busy in the schoolyard at Prairie Crossing Charter School.


At Prairie Crossing, we believe that outdoor learning, learning in and from nature, is a key component of developing environmental literacy and a sense of place.  Our Sustainable Schoolyard consists of outdoor learning spaces designed to expand our classrooms from the traditional four walls to the wide world beyond.  Teachers and students have access to raised bed gardens for food production and native prairie and pollinator gardens, all accessible through pathways and benches.  With these carefully developed spaces, classes are able to experience the environment on a daily basis.


Components of Our Sustainable Schoolyard


Food Gardens

The Prairie Crossing campus has over 40 raised beds for food production, as well as 6 in-ground garden beds.  The school got creative with space to maximize growing potential – 24 raised beds are located on parking lot islands!  Each class, from kindergarten through eighth grade, has access to their own garden space that students and teachers can plan, plant, harvest, and eat from.


To ensure that the experience is meaningful to both students and teachers, gardening is integrated into the curriculum.  “Being outside and getting your hands dirty as you plant and harvest really helps the students make a better connection to where the food comes from.  It is also a lot of fun!” states teacher Kelly Smith.


Most people probably associate gardening with science or nutrition, where life cycles, botany, scientific thinking, and experimentation lend themselves naturally to the gardening arena, but our gardens are integrated into our other subject areas as well.  For example, there are many math lessons to learn in the garden.  Younger students practice measuring as they follow seed pack instructions when planting their seeds.  Older students experience real world applications for area and volume as they determine how much soil, how many plants, and how much water they need for their garden beds.  Students also use math when they harvest and prepare their food.  They choose and scale recipes, measure quantities, and deal with budgets as they procure ingredients that cannot be grown at school.


Gardens are integrated into the social sciences through the links between food, agriculture, and culture.  For instance, students studying Native Americans grow corn, beans, and squash, learning about the cultural and scientific significance of this companion planting.  Victory gardens and colonial herb gardens bring U.S. history to life.  Students choose recipes based on diverse cultural experiences – they even work with the Spanish teachers as they use their tomatoes and peppers to make salsas.


Gardening lends itself to literacy as well.  In kindergarten, an entire unit is based around garden literature.  First and second grade students learn to write processes through creating gardening instructions.  In fifth and sixth grades, students read the young readers’ versions of Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan) and Seedfolks (Paul Fleischman) in English Language Arts as they study food and farming issues and grow and cook food in their gardens.  Reading and writing are rich with garden connections.


Food from Prairie Crossing’s gardens gets used in several ways.  The school community participates in a monthly Farm to Table lunch program, which features school-grown produce as well as food from local farms.  Area chefs work with parent volunteers to prepare fresh, healthy meals for the school community to enjoy.  Classes also engage in cooking projects, preparing no-cook recipes (salsas and salad dressings are favorites) as well as soups and stews that can be cooked in slow cookers.  More elaborate meals involve cooking over fires or grills.  Finally, some classes choose to grow produce to donate to needy families through local food banks.


Native Plantings

Prairie Crossing’s landscaping features native plants, which in turn attract native fauna.  Native landscaping allows students to become familiar with the local ecosystems, observing the phenophases of common plants and the lifecycles of birds and insects.  Because they can observe nature right on school grounds, classes are able to engage in outdoor learning on a daily basis, despite restrictions on time and schedules that are experienced in all schools!


Discretionary Gardens

Each classroom at Prairie Crossing has a doorway that leads to the out-of-doors.  The area directly outside of each classroom is that teacher’s discretionary garden. Teachers can choose how to best use the space to enhance learning opportunities for their students.  The kindergarten teachers created a developmentally appropriate outdoor classroom and exploration area for their students.  It features a bridge and logs to balance on, a fort-building area, musical instruments, and natural weaving.  The area has log rounds for students to sit on and flip-back benches for writing.  Students can use this area every day – it truly is an extension of their classrooms.


Other teachers have made buy ambien usa very different choices in using their outdoor space.  The seventh grade students have installed a fire pit outside their classrooms, which is used for outdoor cooking as well as for winter warmth.  Third and fourth grade classrooms have a wigwam, built by students with the help of a Potawatomi partner, and a native peace garden that features traditional plants, colors, and languages.  We have butterfly gardens and bird gardens, rain gardens and prairie gardens, all designed by teachers and students to meet their needs.  Most classroom gardens have benches, stones, or other accommodations for class meetings and student work.  Students are involved in the maintenance of these gardens, which gives them a sense of ownership (and also provides excellent movement breaks – weeding is a great way to expend extra energy!).


The school’s native and discretionary gardens are as important to the curriculum as the food gardens.  Classes use outdoor learning in all subject areas.  In science, for example, younger students monitor class trees to record how they change through the seasons.  As students get older, they make more sophisticated phenological observations, and even report data as citizen scientists to Project BudBurst.  Students studying birds in science and graphing in math conducted bird counts at the school’s bird feeders, and then made graphic representations of the numbers of different species they discovered.  Math is enhanced through outdoor learning as students use geometry to measure the sun’s angles and to discover the heights of trees that are too tall to measure.  Social studies comes to life as students use the outdoor fire pit to cook traditional foods using historic methods and tools (such as maple sugar and wild rice, or simple “cakes” like pioneers may have created).  Students also learn about the histories and traditional uses of many of the native plants on campus.  Of course, writing is incorporated as students use the natural world for inspiration in a variety of genres – poetry, narratives, and descriptive essays.


Our special content area teachers also take advantage of the school’s outdoor classrooms.  The art teacher takes students outside to draw from life.  Art classes have collected and used natural materials for dyes and paints, and collected natural objects to use in collages and rubbings.  The music teacher is able to integrate the sounds of nature – birds, insects, wind – into learning about sounds and teaching musical concepts (like high and low, fast and slow).

Photo | Dilrukshi Dybas

Photo | Dilrukshi Dybas

Interpretive Signage for Green Design

Visitors to Prairie Crossing’s campus (as well as our own students) can learn about some of our school’s sustainable features through interpretive signage.  Signs explain such features as the wind turbine, solar panel, geothermal field, rain cisterns and barrels, compost center, and recycled glass sidewalks (Interior signs explain other components of the LEED certified classroom building). The signs help our neighbors to understand what is special about our school, and they provide our students with explanations of the unique features of our built environment.


Beyond the Campus

In addition to our school grounds, we are lucky to have an agreement with the local neighborhood that allows us to use the open spaces in the community, including restored prairies, lakes, ponds, and miles of trails.  Our students are able to explore these areas, conducting field studies in a variety of habitats.  These experiences enrich their learning as they feel more immersed in nature with larger habitats to explore.


Community connections have enriched our students in ways that would not be possible inside or even on our small campus.  For example, students participate in a prairie burn each spring, learning to use the tools and watching as a small patch of prairie goes up in flames.  They are able to imagine what pioneers must have experienced when the prairie caught fire and they are able to see the rebirth of the prairie as they observe the new growth on a daily basis.  Another wonderful connection happened when the local lake was undergoing shoreline restoration.  Eighth grade students, learning about water quality and chemistry, were able to test the water quality before, during, and after the project.  Their data provided valuable information to the land stewards.


At Prairie Crossing, we believe that nature is the best teacher.  We believe that being out in nature improves our students’ emotional health, lowers their stress, and has countless other benefits to their overall health.  This is true for all students.  Says special education teacher Melissa Plucinski, “students with learning disabilities or sensory integration challenges can utilize our gardens for reading, writing, or self-regulation. It’s pretty special, not only to have outdoor spaces, but to be empowered to use them for any type of teaching and learning.”


We believe outdoor learning makes our students more observant, more respectful, and more connected to their place and their community.  We want to ensure that our students are able to learn from nature as much as possible, and Prairie Crossing’s campus features makes this a reality!


About Naomi Hershiser


Naomi Hershiser is the Dean of Environmental Learning at Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, Illinois.  In that capacity, among other things, she helps teachers and students make the best use of the school’s garden spaces and outdoor classrooms.  To learn more about Prairie Crossing’s campus and curriculum, visit or email