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McGehee school uses a butterfly garden to teach concepts 

Lee Cutrone on how a New Orleans school is using a butterfly garden to teach many concepts

click to enlarge A Little Gate student explores the butterfly garden at Louise S. McGehee School.

A Little Gate student explores the butterfly garden at Louise S. McGehee School.

In Voltaire's 18th century coming-of-age story Candide, the eponymous protagonist concludes "Il faut cultiver notre jardin," which translates to "We must cultivate our garden." In the new butterfly garden opened in September at Louise S. McGehee School, those words are apropos. Beautiful, interactive and multilayered, the Mary Alice Quinn '54 Butterfly Garden is a place where students, teachers and visitors can learn and grow.

  "The garden was three years in the making," says McGehee Headmistress Eileen Powers. "It's really an outdoor classroom that came to fruition when we realized we do so much with [the] Reggio Emilia [approach]." The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy focused on preschool and primary education in which children are encouraged to explore and investigate through a self-guided curriculum. It's also a methodology that aligns well with the school's overall mission of turning out graduates who are lifelong learners and researchers, according to the administration.

  The garden was made possible by a donation to Little Gate, McGehee's early childhood program, from alumnus Mary Alice Quinn of Memphis, Tennessee. It was designed by Alan Mumford of Landscape Images (with input from faculty) and installed a few weeks ago.

  "True to Little Gate's Reggio Emilia approach, the butterfly garden encourages a child's innate sense of curiosity and wonder," says Little Gate Director Camille Greenberg. "The children seem to stop and slow down and wonder and investigate," adds Mimi Odem, the school's lower school admissions director.

  The park-like setting, complete with a paved pathway, bamboo flower bed railings and child-sized hills, teaches Little Gate students about the life cycle of the butterfly (a process that takes 21 days), its habitat and the interaction between plants and animals. Within that hands-on framework, students and faculty discover countless other lessons as well, including learning to respect a natural habitat, identify flowers, trees and other greenery and herbs by name, appreciate the sensory experience of a garden and be inspired and renewed by the beauty and calm of nature, according to faculty and administrators. Some girls use the garden as a place to sketch; for other students, it's a quiet oasis. "It's so much more than a butterfly garden," Powers says.

  At the entrance to the garden is a "butterfly shade tent," where students can gather. An awning overhead mimics the shape of a butterfly's wings and moves with the breeze. From there, visitors are led through the four stages of a butterfly's life — from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis and finally to the emergence of a butterfly. Art installations representing the four stages of metamorphosis are found along the way — stones denote eggs, a boxwood hedge is clipped in the shape of a caterpillar, a mesh curtain with bits of tattered fabric symbolizes molten skin and suspended gourds signify the pupa stage.

  Butterfly gardens are planted with colors and fragrances that attract butterflies and nectars that feed them. The McGehee garden contains a profusion of flowering plants and vines as well as fragrant herbs. Milkweed, plumbago, jasmine, wisteria, lantana, cat whiskers, sunflowers, cone flowers, porter weed, rudbeckia thryallis, parsley and dill - all labeled for identification — are included in the landscape. Little Gate students use magnifying glasses to inspect leaves for eggs and delight in the butterflies they spot.

  Because the garden includes a path, hills, bridges and a balance beam-like area known as the stump challenge, children are engaged physically as well. Little Gate students are welcome to walk the garden path or ride through the exhibit via pedal car or tricycle. Other interactive play spaces in the garden include a "Mud Pie Kitchen"; the willow dome, a whimsical igloo-shaped house woven from twigs; and the Aqua Architects' Bridge, an addition designed by Little Gate's 3-year-old class and some of their parents.

  Thanks to the warm climate in New Orleans, the garden will be a place for all seasons.

  "We planted the garden for year-round butterflies," Greenberg says. It also will be a place of inspired education.

  "It's full of unlimited, endless possibilities," Odem says.

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