Our Outdoor Learning Program Creates Unique Engagement Opportunities for Our Students

Principal's Corner
February 13, 2020

As I reflect on my short time here at Stratford Landing, I often think about my first few days as principal. It was an exciting time, and I experienced a range of emotions both personally and professionally. In my first week as principal of Stratford Landing, I found myself circling back to the same location in this beautiful building. That location was our Discovery Garden. I would spend time in the garden thinking, reflecting and planning (and eating Roseina’s!) My first impression of the garden was the specialness of the space to many of our students, staff and families, especially those connected closely to the work.

Our outdoor learning program really provides unique learning opportunities for our students. We have only just begun seeing some of the benefits of the Discovery Garden at Stratford Landing. Ms. Shannon, our Assistant Principal, leads this work. She has been a guiding influence on the evolution of this unique learning space.

My first experience observing how engaging this program was for our students was at my first community event I attended as principal of Stratford Landing. It was the free SLES / Arcadia Farmer’s Market during the summer of 2019 at the Gum Springs Community Center. Students were laughing, reading, taking home books and tasting different fruits and vegetables. It was a memorable event, and the perfect way to gain immediate understanding of the capabilities of our outdoor learning program and our Discovery Garden space.

Wanting to learn more about the evolution of our garden, I asked to speak with Mary Charlton, our Outdoor Learning Teacher. You can imagine her passion and pride as she spoke about the recent accomplishments in the Discovery Garden. 

In the Spring of 2018 Mrs. Charlton was supporting the garden as a parent volunteer. Channeling her passion for gardening and teaching, she became the Garden Teacher for the 2018-2019 school year. She taught in the garden as a “specials” class, meaning that when students went to PE, Music, Art, etc. they also went to the garden. The school year was spent working with a garden curriculum and garden science lessons. This school year we shifted away from that teaching model, but classes and students are still working directly with Mrs. Charlton in the garden through classroom sign-ups and other special programs like Garden to Cafeteria and horticulture therapy.

We spoke about grants that Stratford Landing has earned and how that funding contributed to the success of our garden. Mrs. Charlton is a grant-writing machine and also enlisted the support of our school counselor and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) teacher. Through 3 grants awarded to Stratford Landing, our Discovery Garden continues to evolve.

The first grant awarded to us was the Apple Federal Credit Grant in November 2018. This grant funded important garden necessities, such as soil, garden beds, seeds and plants.   

Then, in the fall of 2019 Stratford Landing earned the Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom Grant which helped moved us closer to a greenhouse in our garden! Recently, our gracious community partners, Arcadia, donated the remaining cost for our greenhouse and they delivered the greenhouse, too! Construction on this greenhouse should begin very soon. This new addition increases growing space and will create new opportunities for students in our garden. The greenhouse will also deepen learning for students.

The hydroponic system grant was also a Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom grant awarded to us in the fall of 2019. This is yet another way to engage students in horticultural learning. Stratford Landing also received funding from FCPS's Get2Green to purchase native plants for the garden. Currently, we are working with a student at West Potomac on a grant to plant 6-8 trees on our school grounds in the Fall of 2020.

As Mrs. Charlton and I’s conversation continued, I asked her what were some of the current focuses and successes of our outdoor learning program.

“We are harvesting produce from our garden every Monday and Wednesday which then goes on our salad bar Tuesday and Thursday. Our garden to cafeteria program is made possible through a USDA grant from Fairfax County Public Schools.” Mrs. Charlton worked with FCPS Nutrition Services and Arcadia to receive approval for the Garden to Cafeteria (GtoC). Stratford Landing is proud to be only one of three schools in the county to pilot this program. 

“And we’re making curriculum connections, too. Second graders are keeping a weather record for the school. First graders discussed a bird’s needs in winter and then made bird feeders while discussing which of our ingredients would dissolve in our mixture. In December 2019 first graders also learned about evergreens. We used recycled milk cartons and recycled evergreens and made evergreen floral arrangements. We took our leftover branches to St. Adian’s for their Christmas tree sales. Third grade has been studying Earth cycles and acted out the ocean tides with relation to the moon. We also did a ladybug unit and went on ladybug hunts and created ladybug feeders. Turns out they really love raisins! They also got to create their own take home water cycle! Fourth grade has been using the milk jugs that we have collected to do some winter sowing of lettuces, kale, and herbs. We also created mini-hurricanes and clouds in a jar. Kindergarteners just went on a living, non-living garden hunt.”

Mrs. Charlton and I also spoke about the involvement of the PTA and how important that partnership has been to the success of our outdoor learning program. Parent and community volunteers will be instrumental in the continued success of our outdoor learning program. Generous donations from our community at events such as Rock N Run support our outdoor learning program and the Discovery Garden. The PTA supports our outdoor learning program through a line item in their annual budget. 

I asked Mrs. Charlton, "What do you think is the most important thing for our community to know about the current state of our garden?"

“That it’s aweeeeeesome! The kids are running it! They are learning, getting their hands dirty! Planting them, harvesting them, getting this food to the salad bar – it really is a kid driven space.”

I asked one last question, “What’s your ultimate goal for the Discovery Garden?”

“That we would see students involved in the year-round full process of growing, harvesting and eating, giving them healthy eating options and helping them know and learn the science behind where food comes from. It’s about hands-on science and tying learning to the FCPS curriculum.”

To continue to involve our community and GROW (see what I did there) our outdoor learning program together, we are hosting several garden meet-ups. We’ve identified the third Thursday of each month to start these garden meet-ups. We are looking at March 19, April 16, May 21 and June 18, 2020. This is a great opportunity for our families to support the work of our Discovery Garden and help strengthen our outdoor learning program. Support from our community will be key to the future success of this program.

If parents would like to sign up to help harvest for our garden to cafeteria program you can do so here:


Also, please keep sending in those clear plastic milk jugs! You can also donate any old terra cotta pots as classes will be making ollas to water our plants over summer. Mrs. Charlton and the Stratford Landing administration team are deeply grateful for the support from our PTA and volunteers. It’s a special partnership that we are looking forward to strengthening over the next several years.

Please, make it point to visit our garden and learn more about this unique student learning space. Better yet, come on out and volunteer 😊