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Mother Nature is alive and thriving at Top of the World Elementary School’s garden


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The garden at Top of the World Elementary (TOW) was constructed in the 1980s to replace an aging wood play structure and for decades has been a place that children experience first-hand the pleasures of growing plants and produce.

Showered with tender loving care from students, volunteers and teachers, over the years, it’s become a magical space and continues to thrive.

According to the California Department of Education, “Top of the World Elementary has always had a focus on developing environmentally and socially conscious students by providing opportunities for them to make positive impacts locally and globally. There are three onsite gardens used as outdoor classroom spaces, an 18-foot geodesic dome greenhouse and outdoor cooking stations. In a one-year period, students spent a combined 10,000 hours learning outdoors.”

Mother Nature pathway

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The garden with its mature fruit trees and abundant flowers

When TOW Principal Meghan Schooler calls the garden, “phenomenal,” she’s not exaggerating. One just has to step into the enchanting Outdoor Classroom to appreciate its value to the students – and the community.

Gardening requires a lot of maintenance volunteers, as well as volunteers to keep the education ongoing. “We have a great group of volunteers,” said Director of Communications and Engagement for the Laguna Beach Unified School District Ana Urenko. Volunteers give more than 1,000 hours a year to the school garden.

One of the three gardens, the Outdoor Classroom, is a fenced one-half acre rectangle located behind the field. It has 20 plots for third, fourth and fifth grade classes, CLC (an alternative school within Laguna Beach Unified School District) and after-school use. The Primary Garden is used by the lower grades and is located near the first grade rooms. The kindergarten garden is the newest addition, in the kindergarten yard.

In addition to TOW PTA, the gardens have multiple sources of funding to keep them flourishing.

Mother Nature Osborne

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Part of the Outdoor Classroom is an amphitheater where (on May 16) LBUSD Board Member and PTA Garden Coordinator at TOW Kelly Osborne instructed Teacher Darby Nagby’s second grade class about the specifics of the garden

The Outdoor Classroom has seating areas for instruction, a reclaimed log seating amphitheater, outdoor blackboards, tool sheds, vermicomposting, sprout house and mature citrus trees. It has several themed gardens such as the Fire-safe garden and Pollinator garden.

The TOW Outdoor Classroom is the site of a sequence of standards-based lessons taught over the course of the school year. In these lessons, real-world connections can be made to science, math and social studies in the outdoors. Each class visits the garden six times a year for academic lessons.

The entire school has access to the seating area for various subject matters such as art, science, nature studies, or pure enjoyment of the environment. On Fridays during lunchtime, students can access the garden to do crafts or pick produce and flowers.

Mother Nature blackberries

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Blooming blackberries 

The gardens overlook Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park, which covers 3,879 acres in the lower watershed of Aliso Creek. Sitting at 1,000 feet high, children in the gardens can experience the majesty of the natural world with the canyon and ocean landscape below.

On May 16, LBUSD Board Member and District School-Wide Garden Coordinator Kelly Osborne instructed a second grade class (on garden specifics) and then assigned them tasks. They had to graph the garden and then had a choice of watering, picking weeds, or removing snails from the plants or harvesting carrots or fava beans. With choices made, they all set off with enthusiasm to get buckets.

Mother Nature graphing

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With Teacher Darcy Nagby overseeing, the second grade class graphs the garden

It was obvious the second graders were relishing their tasks and even snail spotting took on a serious note.

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Later their teacher shared some of the students’ commentary on the garden:

“I like the garden because we get to eat fruits and make fun stuff like smoothies. I also like the garden because we can find all kinds of creatures like snails, slugs, spiders and more. The garden is sooo fun!” –Tyler

“I like the garden because it is inspirational, because you can get inspired to make your own garden at home.” –Holland

“I like the garden because gardening helps the environment.” –Vivian

“I like the garden because everything is so interesting. We do fun activities and look for bugs.” –Elle

Mother Nature snails

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Students took the snail roundup very seriously

Aside from being fun, as demonstrated by the class, according to experts, gardening is educational and develops new skills including: Responsibility – from caring for plants. Understanding – as they learn about cause and effect (for example, plants die without water, weeds compete with plants). Self-confidence – from achieving their goals and enjoying the food they have grown.

In 2017, to expand the functioning of the garden, the greenhouse was built with a grant from Seeds of Change and donations from TOW PTA and LBUSD.

The Top of the World PTA presented the idea for the greenhouse. The vision for the greenhouse was to provide a space where students could become more involved in the seed handling process and understand how living organisms within an ecosystem interact.

Mother Nature greenhouse

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The greenhouse was built in 2017

As a result, TOW secured a $10,000 grant as a Secondary Prize Recipient from Seeds of Change and that amount was matched by Top of the World PTA and LBUSD. The 18’ geodesic dome greenhouse provides a space where students become involved in propagation, being able to seed, up-pot and transplant, increasing the yields in their garden and also giving students a memorable, hands-on school experience.

Other grants they’ve received: 2015, The Ecology Center: Grow Your Own Program – $10,000 service-in-kind; 2014, Whole Kids Foundation – $2,000 and 2011, Laguna Beach Water District – Fire Safe Garden.

Earlier this month, the Laguna Beach Garden Club awarded $1,500 to TOW to help them maintain and improve the gardens.

Mother Nature hydroponic

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Hydroponic gardening in the greenhouse

Since the garden has been around for decades, the experience has inevitably passed from parents to children. “The garden has become generational,” said Urenko. “Before COVID, they held a family garden night, made lemonade with lemons from the trees and made Pico de Gallo with produce from the garden. They had a few activity stations and then they’d sit down to dinner.”

It has been said that, “A garden is a grand teacher.” It’s apparent that the TOW garden has given these children the opportunity to be students of Mother Nature as part of their education – which seems more critical now than ever.

For more information about the TOW gardens, go to

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