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USF Preschool incorporates green curriculum with renovations

Paula da Silva, director of the USF Preschool for Creative Learning, hopes to create a learning environment for preschool students in which they can play in a sustainable environment.

Phase 1 of da Silvas three-phase plan for revamping the preschool began Friday with a seed-planting party, bringing students from the Student Environmental Association (SEA) and Food Activists Revolutionizing Meals (FARM) organizations into the classroom at the preschool.

da Silvas vision for the preschool includes children making food with herbs theyve grown themselves, and tomatoes theyve picked off the vines. Instead of playing on a jungle gym, preschoolers play on wooden logs and in butterfly gardens.

We really wanted to try and create an outdoor classroom, da Silva said. We want to integrate the things the children grow into snack time and we also want to partner with the parents to reinforce these healthy habits at home.

At the seed-planting party, students from the organizations engaged in activities with the preschoolers ranging from rock painting to seed planting. Each child chose a fruit or vegetable seed, and planted it in a temporary container filled with soil to sprout. The containers will later be placed in the many gardens around the area next month after the cold season is over.

It is all about reconnecting people to the food they eat, Joseph Michalsky, a senior majoring in civil engineering and president of SEA, said. When I was growing up, the only nature I saw was maybe orange groves. When these kids were asked where food comes from they said Publix. We are trying to show these children that the food they eat actually comes from the earth.

Tony Law, a beautification coordinator from Hillsborough Community College, said these events and partnerships are designed to give the students a connection with nature.

When you start at such a young age, youre going to have generations of people who appreciate gardening and the nature around them, Law said. The lessons these kids are learning is beyond value.

On Saturday, following the seed planting party, two dozen students from multiple on-campus organizations came out to help make over the outdoor section of the school as part of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagements Stampede of Service.

Students sanded benches, removed trash, repainted playgrounds and constructed gardens.

Everything in the outdoor area is about living within nature and sustainability, da Silva said. We are using all the logs that no longer serve a purpose on our playground to make a theater stage and gardens.

da Silva has brought in a number of individuals from the Institute of Florida Studies and Hillsborough Community College to provide donations and expertise to the redesigning of the school.

It was kind of like a puzzle, da Silva said. I knew what I wanted to do with the learning environment, and I was calling and bringing all these different people from the community together to make these things happen.

Terri Fernandez, director of the child development center at Hillsborough Community Colleges Dale Mabry campus, said at the HCC Child Development Center, children enjoy things like quiet nature areas, mud kitchens and multiple species of pets.

Me and Paula have kind of a collaboration going on, Fernandez said. At my preschool, the herbs and vegetables that the students grow are actually used in the food halls, so we run a kind of sustainable loop and I think (da Silva) wants to implement a lot of these kinds of things here as well.

Fundraising and planning for Phases 2 and 3 of the renovations are still ongoing and will involve purchasing outside equipment.

What we want to do is use nature to dictate the landscape of the playground, da Silva said. We want to create mini-ecosystems around the gardens weve created. We want to have different centers including the theatre center.

Ultimately, da Silva said she aims to create an environment where children learn to play within nature and begin to really enjoy the benefits of play time, using gardens and nature as a tool.

So far I have seen a tremendous change in student behavior, da Silva said. They are calmer and more attentive and seem to enjoy more of the benefits of playtime when they learn to play with nature.