Preschool Eden, 5 floors up


Preschool Eden 5 floors up
Trinity Lutheran College’s urban rooftop garden grows produce and helps preschoolers grow up with an appreciation of God’s creation.


By Anne Basye

Barefoot, pint-sized pirates are waving their swords as they sail their ship across a clear-blue bay.

The ship is a picnic table, turned upside down. The swords are twigs. And the salmon-filled bay is painted on the fifth floor of a parking garage in downtown Everett, Wash.

Welcome to Acorn Learning Center, the lab school for the Early Childhood Education program at Trinity Lutheran College.

Acorn is an urban/nature preschool dedicated to reconnecting children with God’s creation — a cause dear to Sue Houglum, program chair and preschool founder. “There’s a nature deficit in our culture right now, and it’s not healthy for kids,” she says. Drawing on the burgeoning nature kindergarten movement, she has shaped a program around one objective: keeping kids outdoors.

Occupying a former department store and surrounded by concrete, Trinity had “no space for children to be outdoors,” Sue remembers. So space was created in the rooftop vegetable garden that students and faculty were about to install on the campus parking garage, thanks to an ELCA Domestic Hunger Grant and funds from Wheat Ridge Ministries and Thrivent Financial.

Creating a rooftop oasis

Trinity soccer players put in Acorn’s first sand area, and the stark, concrete parking garage was gradually covered with containers that became meadows, an orchard, a willow play house and pots of tulips and blueberries. A student from Alaska created the painted river that meanders through rapids, a waterfall and past a bear hunting for salmon.

Now Acorn parents drop their children in an oasis at the top of the parking garage. For the first two hours of the three-hour program, kids play outside — no matter what the weather. “All the kids have snow and rain gear, rain coats and boots and warm clothing that they keep in our rooftop garden house,” says Sue. “Even the babies in our infant program spend time outdoors.”

Dressed appropriately, they engage in “emergent curriculum,” a fancy term for inventing their own play. Sticks, leaves, dirt, sand, sliced tree trunk “cookies” and the picnic table — now a boat, now a castle, now a fort — are the building blocks for unstructured, often messy games.

“They get pretty grimy,” Sue concedes. “One little guy we literally have to strip down and redress every day when we come inside, he’s so muddy.”

From urban hazard to urban haven 

During growing season, Acorn preschoolers share the parking lot with Trinity students like Bello Dondja, who plant, tend and harvest container-grown fruits and vegetables for the college’s kitchen and a community food bank.

“When I was growing up in Togo [West Africa], my family farmed a lot. It was the main source of income and food,” says Bello, a business and communications major. “It’s still farming when I see lettuce grow. It reminds me of where I came from and how to stay true to myself.”

When the blueberries and cherry tomatoes ripen, the Acorn school students help out — by eating them right off the plants in their play area. Because they feel comfortable outdoors, Acorn kids will “try anything,” says Sue, including carrots, all sorts of herbs and nasturtium blossoms.  

Fortunately, the rooftop garden only contains plants and trees that are not toxic. But while holding school five floors above downtown Everett means there are never cats in the sandbox, hazards do exist.

“We do risk assessments all the time to figure out what’s safe and what’s not,” Sue notes. “After all, our kids play with sticks, dig with them and even run with them.”

Every morning before school starts, the staff sweeps the garden for needles and other drug paraphernalia. “It’s problematic, but part of being in a downtown urban setting,” she says. “Half the world’s population lives in urban settings, so if we can’t figure out how to bring nature here, we will continue to go down this road of nature deficit.”

Sue and her charges aren’t taking that road. Acorn Learning Center has a long waiting list, and Sue has presented her work to the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association. She is consulting with Our Savior’s in Mukilteo, Wash., on its new outdoor preschool program.

She is passionate about making sure that the littlest Lutherans see “not only that [God’s creation] is beautiful but that there is food that is created for us, and we can grow it, and food is created for butterflies and walking stick insects — kids can feel the awe and wonder of what they see growing.” Even if it grows on a concrete rooftop!

Anne Basye lives and writes in Mount Vernon, Wash.

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