STEM garden at Petaluma elementary school brings learning outside

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At 11 a.m. Tuesday, 25 of Kari Sampietro’s La Tercera Elementary School kindergarteners filed into the Petaluma school’s revitalized garden.

Some headed to the right, to the water station where they poured water through funnels and let gravity move it through a maze of plastic bottles and hoses into a bucket. Others went straight for the collection of sticks in the middle of the garden, where they used rubber connectors to create a tepee, complete with an interior “bench.” Off to the left, a pair of boys played among the sensory bins, each filled with a different material: dirt, water beads, marbles, pompoms, rice and rocks.

The garden is in line with the school’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and was Sampietro’s brainchild and summer labor of love. The materials were donated or reused from the previous garden, which was overrun by crabgrass, ivy and willow plants at the end of last school year and described by Principal Michele Crncich Hodge as a “Jumanji garden.”

Some of the repurposed cast-offs came from local businesses, like the giant wooden wire spools now painted to look like toadstools serving as tables, or the raised white garden bed housing the sandbox, brought over by a friendly neighbor.

“I’d be working here all summer and they’d be like, ‘Here you need this?’ ” Sampietro said. “I had a couple drive by and say, ‘We’ve been driving by and watching this, so we just wanted to stop and see.’ ... So many people walked by here and stopped and talked to me.”

The idea of the garden is to encourage learning through hands-on exploration.

With the sensory bins, Sampietro, said, “it’s stimulating for them to feel the different materials, how dirt feels in their hand, what water beads feel like.

“It’s just to stimulate their senses, and then they manipulate the materials with different tools. How can I pick this up? How many can fit in a measuring cup?”

Soon, the metal troughs in the middle of the garden will be planted with the help of a master gardener. Right now, signs advertise the troughs’ future inhabitants: squash, onions, celery, lettuce, potatoes and beans.

Sampietro also focused on incorporating natural materials in the garden, such as the pile of sticks or the loom where kids have woven plants through old fencing material.

“A lot of kids don’t play with sticks anymore,” Sampietro said. “They don’t go out in the field and play with stuff, so I wanted to bring in organic stuff that they could manipulate.”

The idea is that the school’s transitional kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students will have time among the garden’s dozen stations, which vary from a “fairy garden” with small dwellings and miniature plastic figures to a weather station registering temperature, humidity and dew points to a fake food stand where students can play act selling produce.

“What our challenge is, and the opportunity here is, is to provide kids with the opportunity to be collaborative,” Hodge said. “And actually, with this kind of garden you don’t have to look too far. It invites them to naturally collaborate, and that’s the beauty of it.

“They’re communicating, they’re in groups, they’re talking to each other, they’re figuring out what’s going on. And they have to think critically, too.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or

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