By Kristen Cook

This year I learned that EarthCorps
don’t only make the forest a better
place, they teach other people how
to take care of the forest and some
of those people are us.

— Joseph, 5th grader

As the youth outreach coordinator for Earth Corps, a Seattle-based conservation corps, I provide in-depth service learning projects for youth using habitat restoration as the context. For the past six years, I have been working with teachers and students from Dearborn Park elementary in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

This area of southeast Seattle is away from the wealthier waterfront neighborhoods and properties which look out over the city skyline and Puget Sound. This is an area of the city whose parks and small bits of forest have historically been overlooked, not unlike its residents, many of whom are, to use the current terminology, “underserved.” Within this urban ecosystem, you’ll find ethnicities and languages spanning the globe, and if you drive down from Beacon Hill, or up from Rainier Valley, you’ll come across a tiny gem of a forest, not quite three acres in all. This is the Dearborn Park Children’s Forest.

The Children’s Forest is not some pristine place left miraculously untouched by a century and a half of development all around it. And in a way, this is a good thing, for otherwise what would there be for us to do to make it whole again? Where would all our lessons about the history of this place come from? How could we learn the stories of pioneer loggers if there wasn’t a cedar stump with notches for the springboards? And what would we do other than look and only gently touch, for fear of trampling some rare thing?

Alas, the forest at Dearborn Park has suffered all the ravages an urban forest in the Northwest can suffer: all its conifers logged, garbage dumped in its nooks and crannies, and worst of all, invasive species, especially English ivy and Himalayan blackberry, pushing native plants and animals out of their homes. It takes the concentrated effort of multi-year forest restoration projects to improve the health of such a forest.

Luckily, this particular piece of Seattle forest has just what it needs right next door: an elementary school filled with students who are eager, if not downright desperate, for time in an outdoor classroom and for a place they can call their own.

These are urban kids, many of whom are immigrants or the first in their family to be born in the United States. Seventy-five percent of the students at Dearborn are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and ninety-five percent have an ethnicity other than Caucasian. Some of these kids have stories of violence and poverty to break your heart. But regardless of their demographic characteristics, they are children — ready to play, explore, be challenged and test the limits of their knowledge and abilities. Restoring the Children’s Forest provides an opportunity to do all these things, and for many it provides an environment where they can excel in a way they have a hard time doing in the classroom.

At EarthCorps, we practice what’s called “restoration-based environmental education.”

I’ve been at this EE thing for fifteen years, and I’ve discovered that I’m not happy simply taking groups on a tour, stopping and interpreting (no matter how many games and hands-on activities are woven into a program). No, what I want for the students is a much more intimate experience with nature, the very specific “Puget Sound Lowland Forest” nature that is all around them, even here in the city.

By my standards, a forest restoration project is the perfect vehicle. To do habitat restoration well, students will have to know which plants are native to this area, which animals rely on the forest and for what, and all the other myriad things that make up a Northwest forest.

Since the three acres of the Children’s Forest need some serious assistance, the students I work with can’t help but get intimate with this forest. If they are going to restore it, they are going to have to get dirty.

At first, getting dirty can be a huge challenge. These students have been told since they were little NOT to get dirty, and since most of their time is spent indoors, they often don’t realize just how dirty you can get from pulling ivy and planting trees.

This is where we thank Mother Nature for worms. Pretty quickly in the act of pulling invasive plants we’re turning over soil, and when we start to find worms, boom!… the kids aren’t quite as worried about the dirt — they’re looking really closely to see if they can find a bigger worm or a creepier beetle, or the every-elusive millipede that smells like almonds. If the benefits of the program ended there, with kids being fascinated and comfortable with the soil and the creatures living in it, I’d be happy. But there’s much more to it than this.

Picture a class of twenty-eight students, working in four small groups scattered throughout the forest. Each group surveys the forest in September, looking for areas where the invasive plants are taking over. Using the data they collect on the survey, each group picks out a forest plot — their own special area that they are in charge of for the whole school year.

I and my staff of outreach interns will meet with the class every other week for an hour, and take them through the entire process of restoration from removing the invasive plants, to picking out and planting native plants, to mulching and watering the new plants so they’ll survive the summer.

All through this process, as we experience the changes in the seasons, the students are using their critical thinking skills and making decisions about their plot. What’s the best way to use this tool? This alpine lily is really pretty, but does it grow here? Where should we put this tree that will be one hundred feet tall?

My goal for the students is to have them understand the process, not just be laborers creating a product. By the time we finish in June, the students will know this place — its plants, its animals, its sounds, its smells, everything — and they will care about this place, because they have just spent a year making it healthier.

By students’ standards what makes this a cool project is that they are outside learning all this neat stuff and also doing something meaningful that will last a long time; not to mention to fact that they get to use their muscles and their brains, make decisions, and use tools.

This tools thing is more important to my students than you might think: these are “real” tools, just as sharp and useful as the one EarthCorps crews use when they do the same work for pay. The field guides are the same ones that I use to key out plants. Some observers of my program have worried about this — aren’t the tools too dangerous? Aren’t the field guides too hard to read? Shouldn’t you give them something more “age-appropriate?”

Sara Stein, in her book Noah’s Children sums up this attitude so well: “There seems an urge in our present culture to keep children childish. Instead of introducing them to actual tools and the skills needed to use them, we encourage them to make believe what’s real… Our neglect to teach children useful handiness insults our kind, whose hands preceded our heads in the evolution of a unique intelligence.”

My students take the tools so seriously because at ages ten and eleven, they have had enough of the pretending and are ready for the real work and the real sense of accomplishment that comes with it. (And, by the way, they use the tools safely — because they know if they don’t they won’t get to use them for the rest of the class time, and they really want to use those tools!)

So why does any of this matter? Are test scores going up because of this program? I have no real way of knowing. The teachers that I work with integrate the forest project into their classroom activities. I can show which Essential Academic Learning Requirements the program meets, and we can speculate that the critical thinking and problem solving that the project requires will help my students on tests, but I have to be frank when I say that this is not my first concern. What worries me more than low scores on some standardized test is low scores on citizenship, on caring about other living things, and on feeling like one can actually make a difference in a modern world where so much seems out of our control.

Will it matter in the long run if we have a society of people who score well on tests but don’t know how to be a community? I know that students are committed to this work, beyond the fact that they like to be outside. They want to save something, to counter the negative things they see every day. They have learned how to work together to make that happen. They have found a voice within the borders of a small forest, writing letters to government leaders to keep funding for the restoration program. They have found a voice to speak through their grief at the loss of classmates to violence, by planting memorial trees. They return when they are older to check on their plants, their forest. They themselves have rooted here, in a place that I hope they will remember as fondly as I remember the special places of my childhood, places that gave me the desire to do this work in the first place.

But don’t just take my word for it; listen instead to some of our students and teachers:

When I first came to this school I felt nervous because I did not know anyone. When I had my first class with EarthCorps I was really nervous and a little frustrated because they were pointing to plants and then kids would name them but I didn’t know any of the plant names. But thanks to Earth Corps, I learned mostly all the native plants and evergreens and other types of plants and their history.

Like for example, my favorite one snowberry was used a long time ago to make soap and shampoo. See? If it wasn’t for EarthCorps I would still be sitting around scared and mad because I didn’t know any plant names. Also thanks to Earth Corps, if I ever get lost in the forest, I would know which plants to eat!
— Katie, 5th grader

“How do I express the opportunity to ‘discover’ the rich environment literally in this school’s own back yard in a few words? You program has allowed my students to become stewards of our forest here at Dearborn and also the community. When we first start the year’s program with a new group of students, it seems as though they do not know a tulip from a maple and why it is important to know the difference. Throuh your work, these kids, many of whom are at risk, have something in their lives that is stable, and always there: the forest.”
— Janice Hunt, (former) 5th grade teacher, Dearborn Park Elementary

Kirsten Cook has been with EarthCorps since 2002, coordinating youth outreach programs and the organization’s internship program. When not leading students or interns, she likes gardening, camping, and poking around looking for interesting things in nature.

This article originally appeared in Democracy & Education, Vol. 16, No. 2, published by the Graduate School of Educatio and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College, Portland OR.