--This article was written by Ronni Lundy and was published in the Mitchell News-Journal in April, 2013--
“The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.”
Spruce Pine Montessori School is busily putting educator Maria Montessori’s words into actions these days as students, staff, parents and an assortment of volunteers work together to create an accessible and beautiful outdoor playscape for the school.
On Friday morning, March 15, the hill behind the school at 67 Walnut Street was swarming with small workers of preschool and elementary age clearing bundles of limbs, twigs and debris. They were joined by a dozen or so 20-something AmeriCorps volunteers from the Asheville area who, with the teachers, organized the students into groups to spread mulch, plant bulbs and continue clearing.
The hill, part of the 1-acre-plus campus of the school, has been called the Upper Field after a sports field at the top of it. This area and the wooded hillside leading up to it have long been used by older students for play and exploration, said Lisa Schultz, director of the school.
Chris Stoney, one of the teachers for elementary students (grades 1-3), said, “They have forts in there and a bamboo forest that is like a fairy kingdom. And there’s a big soccer field at the top.”
But the younger students of the school’s primary and toddler programs have not been able to utilize the area fully, noted Astra Coyle, parent of a primary student and one of the organizers of that Friday’s workday.
“Today we’re going to concentrate on clearing out the briars and brambles, and the poison ivy,” she told the waiting AmeriCorps volunteers. “Who’s got the ivy block?” she asked, and a parent produced some.
Those plants and a path whose grade was a bit steep had prevented full use of the hill by the smaller students. Previous volunteers had charted a new path with a more gradual ascent, and it was here that volunteers began to spread mulch.
One small girl in silver mittens helping to plant flower bulbs along the path said, “I’m planting the plants so they turn into food.”
“No, flowers,” her small friend corrected.
“Yes,” the first girl said and continued digging with a small spade.
In addition to work on the hillside, the school is also creating “a more environmentally varied playground” in the fenced area at its base, Schultz said.
Last week some of the outdated playground equipment was removed by parent volunteers. New surface material in the playground will also include tumbled woodchips and grass, plus more greenery and shrubs, Schultz said. The old plastic equipment will be replaced by a small hill that has a slide built into it and structures for building upper body strength.
“Grandparent Heather Dawes created colorful truck tire sand pits,” the director said, noting that the tires were donated by Young’s Tractor Equipment and that bamboo for teepee poles came from the property of one student’s grandparent. The mulch spread on April 15 was donated by the Town of Spruce Pine.
All of the work for the project is being done by volunteers and many of the materials have been donated, Schultz said. The school raised $3600 for the project at the annual auction last year. This year’s auction is May 11th. The school has an additional work day for the project planned for later in April. Middle-school students from the Arthur Morgan School in Celo will be helping with that.
The Upper Field and playground has a new name as well as a new look, Schultz noted. “We’re calling it Carol’s Garden and when it is closer to completion we will have a ceremony dedicating the area to Carol Henry.”
Henry, who died March 4, 2012, was one of the original teachers at the school and was a teacher and director for 20 of the school’s 40 years. Under her aegis, the school’s primary program was expanded from 3 mornings a week to a five-day program including afternoons, said her daughter, Celo resident, Nancy Raskin. “The school was down in English Woods in her day and she had the kids outside there, learning, all the time. She’d also bring them out here (to Celo).”
Raskin noted her mother was an amateur botanist and her love of the outdoors was a large part of her teaching. “One of my favorite things she would do is that she would have every little kid choose their own tree in the spring. Then each would regularly visit the tree and pick a leaf over the year, making a timeline with them, so they were really paying attention, really connecting to that tree and the environment around them.”
Although she no longer has any children in the school, Raskin was a part of the March workday as was her son, Evan. Evan, now 25, was a primary student at Spruce Pine Montessori in the 1990s. Today he is a member of AmeriCorps and was instrumental in enlisting the group of volunteers who participated.
Raskin noted that another aspect of the project, an outdoor music area in the playground made of an assortment of objects (wind chimes, pots, pans, grill racks, etc.) that can be used to make sound, would also have pleased her mother.
“She played recorder and piano. She kept her autoharp at the school for playing with the children,” Raskin said. Henry founded a Sacred Harp singing group in the area and created a songbook, Very Favorites of the Very Young, using illustrations by the students, with local publisher, Around the World Songs.
“We are so touched that the school has chosen to honor her in this wonderful way,” Raskin said.