Franciscan Montessori Earth School creates its Nature Play Earth Path

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Jack Hu and Cato Hess walk through the Franciscan Montessori Earth School garden during recess.

Imagine a morning trek along a path representing Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history.

Along the trail, activity stations mark significant points in the planet’s evolution, from the earth’s creation to the emergence of complex cells.

Franciscan Montessori Earth School (FMES) recently created its quarter-mile Nature Play Earth Path as a way to encourage health and learning among students, neighborhood children and adults.

FMES staff members hope the path becomes a popular attraction in outer Southeast Portland in a neighborhood where the closest park is nearly a mile away.

“We try to make this an area that all of our community can use,” said Sister Therese Gutting. “Our children in this area of town need parks, too. It’s a nice way for us to be community-minded and welcoming.”

The path was designed and created in partnership with the landscape architecture firm Learning Landscape Design. The project has cost about $23,000 and will total about $150,000 when the stations are completed.

On Sunday, Oct. 13, Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz dedicated the Nature Play Earth Path as an extension of Parke Diem, a series of Portland Parks Foundation activities. And the school is looking ahead to expanding opportunities on its 9-acre campus.

“With each step on the Nature Play Earth Path, our students, parents, staff and neighbors are able to exercise, play and feel in their bodies and minds the vast and fascinating history of the earth,” said Michael Winning, FMES development director.

“This is a giant footprint of a project,” Winning said. “This is an opportunity to give some kind of focus to a playground that you don’t have in a traditional setting.”

Operated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, FMES is the only accredited pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Catholic Montessori school in the nation and serves children from throughout the Portland-Vancouver area. Since FMES began in 1977, the school has focused on natural systems, emphasizing outdoor and garden education.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Marc Boucher-Colbert, gardens program specialist at FMES, describes the school's Nature Play Earth Path.

Seven years ago, Marc Boucher-Colbert brought his background in organic farming and sustainable education to the school as a gardens program specialist focused on environmental education.

Boucher-Colbert teaches students to grow and prepare food and compost, along with building garden structures. By learning how to prepare scratch lunches, middle school students develop a palate for fresh produce.

Through a partnership with a community organizer from Arbor Glen apartments employed through Human Solutions, Boucher-Colbert said the school is trying to create a community outreach approach on its campus.

By bringing in neighbors and getting them involved in a positive way, FMES staff members hope to fend off vandalism and crime. They also hope to impart some of the same lessons their students learn — whether it’s exposure to gardening or outdoor activities.

“When there are more eyes on the place, there’s a sense of community and ownership,” Boucher-Colbert said.

Ann Patterson, the mother of a seventh-grader, Summer, volunteers with the garden about once a week.

“Kids are more likely to try something new if they harvested or planted it,” Patterson said. “A lot of kids (at the school) really love kale. How many people succeed in feeding kale to their kids? It’s just the best thing.”

Patterson sees the path as an extra avenue for environmental education. She said the path will create a nice place for school and neighborhood families to walk in the morning — a place to wake up and focus without tromping through wet grass or mud.

Summer is glad to have another outdoor outlet. “It’s nice to be active, do stuff with your hands and not just write on paper,” Summer said.

“In some ways, it’s a lot more useful in life than algebra,” she joked.

From a 10-foot metal globe to a willow tunnel to buried concrete-caste trilobite fossils, activity stations along the Nature Play Earth Path will pop up throughout the next couple years.

“Once you lay the structure in, there are many layers of interpretation,” Winning said of the trail.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Franciscan Montessori Earth School emphasizes outdoor, environmental education.

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