Colleen Illi, a nature lover, hopes her students learn to appreciate the natural world
Imagine a basic walking path and a brick school building. Now add paint, worn tires, ladders, electric spools, some keys, a few old doors and the creative mind of a kindergarten teacher and the result is a “Reimagination Garden.”
Colleen Illi is a Harrison Township School teacher who is constantly on the lookout for fun, inventive projects for her students. Roaming the random avenues of Pinterest one summer night with the school’s courtyard in mind, Illi began to think about gardening. With these ideas, coupled with a grant opportunity through the New Jersey Education Association, Illi envisioned a garden of upcycled materials for the entire district and even community members to enjoy.
Realizing she “better jump in with both feet,” Illi organized a Reimagination Garden Committee, consisting of more than 20 staff members.
“I wanted everyone’s input. I also sent out an email inviting all staff members to create something for our garden that represented their work in our district,” she said.
As excitement about the project buzzed around the school, Illi realized more help was needed to bring this project to fruition — and the parents got involved in droves.
Finally, after the stubborn winter months lost vigor, Illi sent an invitation for a volunteer work day in mid-April. More than 80 volunteers gathered in support, half children and half adults.
With these volunteers came donations from individuals, families, nonprofits and local businesses. Some items include pallet benches and a picnic table, tripod sprinklers, garden tools, lettuce, soil, tires, doors, ladders and much more.
A Harrison Township board member’s business donated $500 to the project. The Harrison Township Green Team donated rain barrels and has offered to assist with irrigation.
Local Girl Scout groups planted vegetables and are in the process of creating a QR code garden tour.
Stepping stones painted with designs such as Cat in the Hat and words boasting positivity surround a picnic area with electric spools turned into tables. Colorful tires stacked three high sit soil-filled, budding with vegetation. Tall, blue ladders stand repurposed as plant stands. Herbs and flowers are planted near sunflowers made of recycled plastic.
Every grade in the district was commissioned to create something for the garden. From those projects came mosaic stepping stones, a painted planter box, a decorated picket fence and more.
“You should see the children who have already been visiting our garden with their teachers, gazing in wonder at all the fun ways you can reuse ‘trash’ in creative ways,” Illi said.
Proud of the work put into the garden, Illi said her students learned a lesson in ownership, “they see their projects playing a major role in this garden.”
In the long-term, Illi said she hopes her students will be able to create lasting memories and “understand a little better how food makes it to their tables, appreciate growing and eating fresh vegetables … seeing no matter how old you are, you can accomplish amazing things that are valued by others.”
A nature lover herself, Illi’s idea for this garden was deep-seated. Thinking back to her childhood years exploring with her cousin the wooded area on family property, she remembers searching for tiny salamanders under rocks, gazing at turtles the size of half-dollars and climbing trees.
Holding onto those memories through her life, she feels she benefited from time spent outdoors.
“My mind had an opportunity to discover, hypothesize, experiment and synthesize day in and day out,” she said.
“When we take a look at learning models from around the world, it is often shown that learning outdoors in nature can have a powerful impact on a young child,” she added.
This new garden will be maintained by school students and staff along with community volunteers. Illi plans to host fundraisers in the future to add to the garden.
“It’s all about the students, what they create, what they can learn from this.”