Blog : Brixham Montessori Builds Vernal Pool Viewing Deck for Students

By Sam | May 5, 2014 | in

Kids are naturally adventurous. They play in the mud, get their clothes dirty, and are often fearless about their surroundings. But how do you engage this sense of discovery in an educational setting?

Ainsley, 10, student at the Brixham Montessori Friends School in York, shares her discoveries in the vernal pool, situated naturally outside the school.

“There’s some frog eggs this year, there’s a lot of plants. It’s questionable whether there’s poison ivy… We’ll find out.”

The Brixham Montessori School in York has built a wooden viewing platform and a boardwalk for the vernal pools that appear on the school’s grounds in the spring. On the deck, students can lie on their stomachs and cup their hands into the water to view the amphibious life, as well as the surrounding flora. When the school moved to their new location in York, they discovered a new opportunity to educate students using the natural resources right in their yard.

“When we moved here in 2006, we knew there were peepers, but we didn’t know quite how much life [the pool] was supporting,” said Alica Johnson-Grafe. “Since we have tadpoles and frog eggs, there are snakes, a groundhog, different mosses and lichens that we’ll be identifying.”

A vernal pool, also known as an ephemeral pool, is a type of seasonal wetland that houses amphibious life and other various small creatures. Because the water level rises and falls so heavily, sometimes drying up completely, it is unable to sustain any fish life, allowing an amphibious ecosystem to thrive without any predators in the water. Because of this, the pools are bursting with life, most often populated by frogs and tadpoles.

Montessori schools operate under a constructivist, or discovery-based, model. Brixham Montessori wanted to use the vernal pool for that purpose. Johnson-Grafe sought to create a space for her students to learn about the thriving wildlife in vernal pools without damaging their habitat.

“Rather than just tell them no, they can’t play in that area, we found a way for them to engage in that space that will allow them to discover these things on their own spontaneously, under the guidance of knowledgeable adults and teachers,” said Johnson-Grafe.

Brixham Montessori has an environmental slant on their constructivist model with plans to operate a year-round garden and expanded compost program, and an agricultural and nature-based curriculum, ranging from seed planting to bird watching. Brixham also has a natural playground inthe woods, using downed trees and other natural resources directly from the woods.

In the spring, the pool reaches its maximum depth, about 18 inches. The upper elementary students will be not only discovering what lives in the pool, but taking samples and identifying species in classrooms.

Ainsley has gained a newfound appreciation for the areas outside of the school by way of the vernal pool boardwalk.

“I like that it’s kind of pretty in the summer when there’s leaves on the trees, and I like that it’s a great place to play when there isn’t frog eggs in it, everyone gathers there after school. I learned that there’s a lot of tiny creatures in a vernal pool, like tadpoles and the little water striders. I didn’t even know that there were animals in the pond until we looked in.”