Bringing Nature to Schools

November 1, 2021
Melissa Sabo, school programs manager, helps two students from Woodlawn Elementary plant some plants.
Melissa Sabo, School Programs Manager, with students from Woodlawn Elementary

by Cassie Barnes, Digital Communications Specialist

On two unseasonably warm and sunny October days, staff from Cincinnati Nature Center went back to school. Instead of backpacks and school supplies, they had native plants, mulch, and a whole lot of gardening gear.

It was time to plant some schoolyard pollinator gardens.



A young girl is kneeling over a plant in a pot
A student from Mulberry Elementary School

School Gardens Program

It all began with a partnership between the Nature Center’s School Programs team, led by Melissa Sabo, and teaching staff at Mulberry Elementary in Milford. First, it started out as an after school nature club, but then grew into creating and planting a garden with native plants to help pollinators.

That school partnership and garden paved the way for the Nature Center to apply for and receive a grant from the Ohio Environmental Education Fund to expand the school garden program into two additional schools.

Which is why Nature Center staff were unloading shovels, rakes, gardening gloves, and about 100 native plants onto the grassy schoolyard of Woodlawn Elementary in early October.


Woodlawn students working in the garden
Woodlawn students working in the garden

The Garden at Woodlawn Elementary

Part of the Princeton School District of Hamilton County, Woodlawn Elementary is right in the middle of a largely industrial area. Their schoolyard is small grassy oasis in the middle of pavement and concrete.

But turf grass does very little for the environment, making even Woodlawn’s green schoolyard as a barren its surroundings, at least for pollinators.

That’s why Woodlawn’s teaching staff and the Nature Center wanted to create a native garden there. And why, one morning, the fifth grade class and their teachers were outside, mapping out a garden, then digging holes, planting plants, and mulching.

It was nearly a full school day’s project, and the kids helped do all parts enthusiastically throughout the day. In spring, they will see the fruits (well, flowers) of their labor, when the plants begin to bloom.


Two third grade students at Seipelt Elementary.
Third Graders at Seipelt helped lay out the garden.

The Garden at Seipelt Elementary

The next day after visiting Woodlawn Elementary, Nature Center staff ventured to Seipelt Elementary School in the Milford Exempted Village School District in Clermont County, with 100 plants in tow for the third, fifth, and sixth grade students to use in their garden creation.

There, the day was broken up a little differently, as there were three grades to accommodate. First, the third graders came out to look for and place the plants in their designated spaces in the new garden.

Next, the sixth graders came out, picked up shovels, and began digging holes and planting the plants the third graders had carefully laid out.

Finally, the fifth grade class came out to place mulch around the garden and lay the pathways between the plants.

“All of the students at both schools did an outstanding job with the work we set out for them,” says Melissa Sabo, School Programs Manager at the Nature Center. “From start to finish, they were enthusiastic and hands-on every step of the way.”

Fifth grade students at Woodlawn Elementary work on their garden
Fifth graders at Woodlawn Elementary work on their garden

Why School Gardens?

These two new school garden projects are the next step in the Nature Center’s Schoolyard Native Plant Program.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that kids need to be able to get outdoors and into green spaces at school,” says Sabo. “It helps their mental, emotional, and physical well-being and helps them to develop better relationship skills. The Schoolyard Native Gardens build directly on that research, bringing nature right to the students themselves.”

Being a part of this program also empowers teachers to include dynamic, hands-on experiences into their curriculum. Plus, working side-by-side with their students to plant and tend to the garden helps to build trust and offers more chances for discovery, exploration, and continued learning.

Additionally, by adding native gardens at schools that are in urban and suburban areas that have little to no natural spaces, the Nature Center is helping students create spots to help local wildlife and pollinators. Having native plants directly in communities creates critical safe havens of food, shelter, and respite for migratory birds, insects, and other animals.

“Our sixth graders loved planting the pollinator garden today with the Nature Center,” says Kendre Perry, a teacher at Seipelt Elementary School. “We can’t wait to see all of the pollinators this spring and create learning experiences in this outdoor classroom.”