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West Jordan Journal

Students take science to the playground with new tree planting

Oct 31, 2018 04:06PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Students dig in to give their new tree a good start. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham@mycityjournals.com

They say, grow where you are planted. But sometimes that’s not possible.

When the playground was originally landscaped at Hawthorn Academy’s West Jordan campus, the trees were not suited to the soil composition.

“It’s so much clay—those trees didn’t stand a chance,” said Principal Deborah Swenson.

The trees struggled for 10 years, enduring the energetic play of students who did not realize how fragile the trees were.

When Swenson came back after summer break this year, the trees were dead. Once they were removed, students had a bare play area with no shade. 

Kathy Pretell was preparing to teach her class about native plants and the impact of climate change on different organisms. To apply a real-life experience of the lesson and solve a school-wide dilemma at the same time, she applied for a grant to fund the purchase of three replacement trees.

Tree Utah, a nonprofit organization, awarded Pretell a $1,000 grant and presented her with a choice of 30 different trees. She chose the Japanese Zelkova, which loves heavy clay alkaline soil. The species is quick growing, and within 10 years will have grown to its full height.

On Oct. 4, Tree Utah volunteers, students, staff and parents worked together to transplant the new trees, which had been growing in buckets for two years, to Hawthorn’s play yard.  

Pretell said Tree Utah dug the holes and provided the trees, mulch and shovels. 

“We provide the students to come out and learn about planting trees and caring for them,” she said.

Students from all the fourth-grade classes—and their second-grade “buddies”—helped with each step of the planting process. First, they loosened the plant’s root ball by massaging and scratching at it to free the roots to grow a sturdy root system. Once the tree was situated straight in the hole, every student took a turn to shovel in dirt to secure the tree in the ground. Then they sculpted a lip and moat in the dirt around the newly planted tree to help it harvest water more efficiently. 

Arly Landry, of Tree Utah, talked with students about the importance of trees. Students were quick to list the benefits of trees: They provide clean air, shade and homes for animals, and they “look pretty.” 

Landry cited research that shows when there are trees on a school playground, the students are happier and healthier.

“Just seeing a tree when you come out to play makes you feel better, which helps you do better in school,” she told students.

Landry also taught student that trees in the Salt Lake Valley keep the temperature about five degrees cooler than it would be without them. 

This information ties into the climate and weather study of the fourth-grade area of study. Pretell was thrilled to have her students apply what they’d learned to improve their own environment.

“We’re helping to mitigate climate change by planting trees that are adapted to our area,” said Pretell. 

Pretell regularly provides her students with experiences outside the classroom. She applies for a grant annually to fund a class field trip to Silver Lake.

“I try to do everything I can to teach my kids the love of the natural world and find businesses that are willing to help and support us,” said Pretell.

Because Hawthorn students were involved in planting the trees and are now better educated about their care and their importance, Swenson believes they will take their stewardship over the trees very seriously.

“When these kids are out to recess, they’ll protect these trees rather than hang on them,” she said. “They have a vested interest in them now.” 

Landry encouraged the students to take care of the tree and visit it often to check on its growth, even years from now.

Landry said during the fall season, Utah Tree plants trees at schools at least once a week. They also plant trees at parks, national forests and along the Jordan River. During the offseason, they provide education programs for adults and a STEM summer camp for youth.

For more information about classes and grants, visit treeutah.org