Watchung Officially Opens Connected Courtyard

Watchung Officially Opens Connected Courtyard
Posted on 05/22/2023
Watchung Elementary School held an opening ceremony for its new Connected Courtyard, an outdoor space where students can connect with nature, each other, and the community. In 2020, Watchung was selected to receive a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey for Schools Grant funded by the NJEA. Drury Thorp, Watchung’s STEAM and environmental science teacher, and parent volunteer, Sarah Paulsen, submitted the grant proposal for “The Connected Courtyard” project. 

That grant was just the beginning. All in they raised over $35,000 from grants and donations from friends and families of Watchung School. “The fundraising process was about more than money though, we were building a community around the development of a shared vision of environmental stewardship,” said Thorp. 

courtyard opening courtyard plants

What was once Watchung’s overgrown inner courtyard has now turned into a thriving learning space filled with over 40 different native plants indigenous to New Jersey and the Northeast. Insect populations, essential to food systems, are declining rapidly. The planting of natives in the courtyard will bring back beneficial insects. The Courtyard serves as an “ARK,” Acts of Restorative Kindness to the earth, supporting a balanced ecosystem with a habitat for insects and birds that are at risk of extinction. 

courtyard program courtyard grand opening

Other features in the Courtyard include a pond ecosystem, an outdoor classroom, and hands-on STEM learning centers, including magnification stations, a root viewer, a listening tube, a sensory box, and a sorting table.

“This project came from the understanding that we have lost touch with our place in this interconnected natural world. We want students to know what it feels like to be connected to our earth, to be part of something much larger,” said Thorp. “This learning space will allow students to explore real-world problems and ideas around solving them. As school communities, we have an opportunity to be changemakers; actually, it’s more than an opportunity - I’d say it’s a necessity.”  

Thorp continued, “By fostering a love of the natural world, we can spur children on to being lifelong learners, engaged in their communities, activists, and engineers of solutions we know we need, but that don’t exist yet.”

During the grand opening event, several students helped plant a pussy willow shrub. Willows are a keystone species and a host plant to over 350 butterflies and moths.

shrub planting child looking at plant

A Connect Courtyard Pledge reminds visitors to “promise to respect all things, observe without harming, move gently through this space, take out what I carry in and never stop wondering about the natural world.”

In addition to the Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant, Watchung received donations from New Jersey Education Association, the Native Plant Society of New Jersey, Bergen County Audubon Society, The Wu Family Foundation, Deb Ellis and Hal Strelnick, The Bonnell/Bellack Family, Twig and Vine Design, The Garden Club of Montclair, and from friends and families of Watchung School. 
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