First Lady Michelle Obama praised the New Paltz High School’s Courtyard Gardens, the center of the school’s outdoor learning run by Cathy Law, an environmental science teacher at the high school.
“I was so honored and certainly shocked that she had honored the garden,” Law said. “I felt so proud because she is someone I really look up to and have respect for.”
Tom Dolan, New Paltz resident and proactive supporter of the gardens, brought it to the attention of the White House and delivered Michelle Obama’s letter in September. In the letter, the First Lady commended Law’s work and mission, which is to incorporate nature in learning, promote healthy eating and bring the faculty, staff and students closer together in the great outdoors.
Law began the garden in 2007 and adopted it as part of the environmental club. What used to be a space full of bark and paving stone is now “jam packed with plants, trees and shrubs,” she said, excitedly noting that “the mess of color is very beautiful.” The 140 foot by 80 foot courtyard has 15 themed gardens, including medicinal, geology, Zen, scented and culinary gardens that all lend themselves to “a whole variety of different learning adventures.”
The garden holds opportunity for an entire wealth of knowledge to students, especially in Law’s favorite section: the medicinal garden. According to Law, students can’t believe it when they learn the plants they grow can be used to treat common colds and tension headaches. She also explained that the gardens teach students to identify a culinary plant, harvest it and cook with its spices.
“It’s important to have this garden to get kids outside learning and eating healthily,” Law said.
Along with the environmental club’s involvement in the gardens, Law said the space is used as an “extension of the classroom” in her biology, earth science and AP environmental science courses. Here, she is able to teach about rocks, insects, floriculture and even art, she said. Law believes that learning in an outdoor environment causes higher retention and higher test scores.
“They are more charged by the process of learning because they are doing the real thing,” she said. “As human species we are meant to be outside. There’s a comfort zone surrounded by plants and nature that we don’t get surrounded by electric panels and lighting fixtures.”
Additionally the garden serves as a center for school events and activities such as snacks and tea in the courtyard, music in the courtyard, chalk drawing, making flower arrangements, meet and greets and pot-luck breakfasts.
Law encourages SUNY New Paltz students to contact her if they have any interest in working with her and the high school students in the gardens.
“I’m always thinking of ways to get kids out there learning and try to initiate even more activities in the garden,” she said.