Building a fairy house has its rewards.
Apart from providing whimsical woodland dwellers with accommodations away from the elements, construction of these natural abodes demonstrates the importance of balance and proportion, as well how to utilize one’s natural surroundings creatively.
For the Girl Scout Troop of McKinley Community School, as well as more than 100 other youths from after school programs in New Brunswick, Perth Amboy, and Paterson, building fairy houses was one of a variety of activities at Saturday’s Earth Day Volunteer Event at Rutgers Gardens that served to educate and facilitate service as it entertained.
“I can’t believe how we’re making houses with things,” said Amber Felix, a first grader at McKinley School. “It’s cool because how we make it, it’s just so cool. I didn’t know we can do that.”
As part of an initiative to support sustainability and volunteerism, the Verizon Foundation teamed up with the New Jersey School-Age Care Coalition and Rutgers Gardens to facilitate a day of fun and learning that would introduce urban youths to nature.
The event was a combined celebration of National Volunteer Week, Earth Day, and NJSACC’s “Celebrate Afterschool! Outdoors in the Garden State” program. Youth activities included fairy house building in the Rododendrom Garden, planting lettuce to take home, and games in the Evergreen Garden.
During fairy house building, youths were instructed to pick mustard grass and may apples from the Rododendron Garden path to use in their structures. Students then worked in groups to build fairy houses against trees out of their picked plants and other natural products from their surroundings, including sticks, bark, acorns, and flowers.
According to event volunteers, the garden is overrun with mustard grass and may apples, so while the activity was primarily an enjoyable way for students to explore nature and work in teams, it also helped staff gardeners cut back this invasive vegetation.
Shan Byrd, McKinley School’s Girl Scout Leader, was impressed with how much her troop was able to take away from the exercise. “It takes strategy, thinking things through, balancing things,” she said. “Not just learning math and how to make things balance, but now they’re doing the hands-on aspect of it.”
When Avola Felix, a second grader at McKinley School, asked what else the day had in store for her troop, she was excited to learn that their next activity would involve planting lettuce.
Of planting she said, “It makes the world prettier.”
While planting lettuce into soil-filled pots that they could take home with them, students discovered techniques to taking care of their plants. Since lettuce will not grow in extremely hot weather, these growers have until about July to eat the leaves off their lettuce.
In addition, students learned that the secret to knowing when to water a plant is to poke one’s index finger into the soil up to the first knuckle. If the soil feels dry on the bottom, then the plant is ready to be watered again. But if the soil still feels moist, there is no need to water the plant yet.
“A lot of children don’t really connect with nature anymore, so for them to actually see everything is set up for them – they don’t have to go to the nursery and buy the potting soil and the plants and all that kind of stuff – everything’s here, and they can experience it, if they like it they can try it again at home,” said Jerri Barclay, one of the Rutgers Gardens volunteers who helped lead the activity.
Event organizers hoped that by bringing youths who may have limited access to green spaces to Rutgers Gardens they would provide them with the ability to understand and have direct interaction with these spaces, as well as a hands-on opportunity to understand what sustainability is through their own work, aligning education with sustainability.
“When your surrounding environment lacks green spaces, it’s very difficult for you to understand why it would be important to preserve green spaces,” said Roselena Martinez, Internal Engagement and Strategy professional at Verizon Foundation and event organizer. “Through activities like this, it begins to engrain in them an understanding of the environment around them, why sustainability and protecting the environment is important, and also just connects them back to more basic processes: ‘where does my food come from,’ ‘how is it planted,’ ‘how is it grown.’”
While the youths played and planted, more than 100 Verizon employees and their families were hard at work unearthing some of their own philanthropic experiences.
Volunteers participated in a variety of planting and maintenance activities within the gardens, including preparing garden beds in the Donald B. Lacey Display Garden, performing general maintenance on the Asian Hillside Garden, and preparing plant beds for the Community Youth Vegetable Garden, which will be planted by school age children during the upcoming weeks.
“It’s phenomenal, because out of the five employees we have, we could never do it all ourselves,” said Mary Ann Schrum, Rutgers Gardens Program Coordinator. “When the corporations come here and give back, what we can accomplish with a hundred people coming out here in one day is incredible.”