Designing the Future: Kids and the Outdoors

Fallon Harris '14 with students at Cornelius Elementary

Fallon Harris ’14 is a natural leader when she visits Leah Henriksen’s clamorous third-grade classroom at Cornelius Elementary School.

As the kids buzz in a happy hubbub of English and Spanish, Harris commands their attention. “If you hear my voice,” she says, cutting through the din, “touch your nose.”

The kids fall silent. Elbows bend. Fingers find noses. 

Harris starts to explain what she wants them to do: Help design an outdoor garden-classroom-activity area that will be constructed on the school’s grounds. She explains to the kids that they can use crayons, construction paper and glue sticks to illustrate their ideas. Then she helps to distribute the materials. The kids fall to work.

Five years out of Pacific University, Harris now directs Eden Acres, a nonprofit that promotes “environmental literacy for all learners of all ages.” The project seeks to incorporate outdoor learning with traditional academic content, partnering with public agencies, schools, businesses, parents and others to conduct outdoor classes and create gardens and other outdoor spaces, like the one that will be built this summer at Cornelius Elementary. Some Pacific students will design, build and maintain the outdoor spaces. 

Eden Acres is a dream Harris developed before she attended Pacific and through the lean years after graduation, when she went without a regular paycheck for two years, staying on farms and the couches of friends. Before she transferred to Pacific from Lane Community College, she had backpacked through Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, staying in hostels and in jungle villages. Along the way, she says, “I became really inspired about working with youth.”

At Pacific, while majoring in environmental studies, she started working at the B Street Farm. “I loved the blend of physical work, being outside and sharing all of the things I loved and found amazement in with the students who visited B Street,” Harris says.

Art and sustainability professor Terry O’Day, who now serves as board chair of Eden Acres, says it was apparent from the beginning that Harris was a student to watch. The two of them found “great alignment in the things we were working on,” says O’Day, who launched what is now the farm back in 2003. 

“She has a lot of drive and a lot of passion for what she does,” says O’Day, who cited Harris’s experience running summer camps during the summers while she was a student and afterward. O’Day notes that Harris was honored with the Dean’s Academic Achievement Award when she graduated in 2014.

Harris’s dream of a building a sustainably focused outdoor learning nonprofit has gained traction now, winning the support of the Forest Grove School District and parents who want their kids to gain some outdoor experience. When Eden Acres’ designers collect the suggestions of the kids at Cornelius Elementary, they’ll design a space that incorporates their major themes. Groundbreaking is scheduled for April. Eden Acres promises to maintain the space in the years to come. 

In Ms. Henriksen’s class, the kids are full of ideas. One draws up a full library inside a treehouse. Many envision trees and structures of various shapes and colors. Two kids create rainbows arcing from cloud to cloud. Also seen are the Sour Patch Kids and Fortnite Battle Royale. 

This has all the making of an epic schoolyard garden.

“We want the kids to be a part of the whole process,” Fallon explains as she wanders among the tables, asking questions about the drawings. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to get away from building a treehouse with a library.”

Thursday, March 21, 2019