2004 Garden Crusader Awards

Winner: Education
Sarah Hester, McKinney, Texas

Sarah Hester
Garden Crusader Sarah Hester
Sarah Hester loves the outdoors and working with kids. She grew up surrounded by nature, riding horses and living in a rural southwestern landscape. A native of Oklahoma, she began entering competitive equestrian events at age nine, and continued competing professionally for the next 25 years.

Sarah is also a trained Montessori teacher, having earned her certification through the American Montessori Society Teacher Education Training program at Oklahoma City University in Oklahoma. When she decided to have children of her own in her late 30s, she knew that she wanted the outdoors to be a big part of their lives as well. "Nature is such an important part of a child's education," she says. "Being able to have hands-on experiences in the garden helps children realize the importance of re-using, recycling, reducing, and taking care of all our resources".

Volunteering at School
With two young children, Sarah decided to be a "stay at home" mom. However, this didn't stop Sarah from pursuing her outdoor passions. Since her children, David and Amanda, were enrolled in a local Montessori school, Sarah decided to volunteer at the school to make a difference. She noticed they had a large garden area. In fact, the visionaries at Good Shepherd Montessori School in McKinney, Texas, had planned for an outdoor area for a garden plot, the goal being to eventually incorporate gardening into the school's curriculum. But, being a new school, they had not yet organized the garden activities. So it was great timing -- Good Shepherd needed someone to organize the garden and Sarah was ready to volunteer!

"We wanted to create a garden curriculum in the Montessori tradition that would be student-directed, self-paced, orderly and have meaning regarding the life cycle of the garden to the children," says Sarah.

Sarah Hester
The projects developed in Texas have been compiled in a book that's now used by schools all across the country.
Drawing on her Montessori teaching experience and basic gardening knowledge, Sarah started experimenting with activities geared toward children in the primary grades. "We'd try out activities in the garden and then I'd visit the school, spend time in the garden with each class and get feedback from the teachers as to how it went," she says. "I'd keep adjusting the exercises until we got them right."

For the introduction exercises, Sarah used soil, water, air, and sun to develop activities that would give the children a chance to experience the basic components of a healthy garden and soil. "The young children love to dig in the garden, and these exercises helped them see the benefits to the garden," she says.

All of the gardening activities emphasized the scientific process. "We developed activities that would deadhead flowers, take out the seeds, and then plant them. That way, the children would see the whole life cycle of that flower, and of the garden," says Sarah. "We want the children to realize that nothing is garbage in the garden. Everything is planted or composted -- either way it benefits the soil," she says.

To be sure the curriculum was scientifically based, two years ago Sarah took the Collin County (Texas) Master Gardener program, sponsored by Texas A&M University. She increased her own gardening knowledge, while confirming that the botanical and horticultural information she had been using was correct.

The Book
After three years and hundreds of hours of supervising activities, taking notes, taking photos, and reworking the exercises, Sarah wrote the garden curriculum as a book to be used by schools. The book quickly became a Montessori underground success. Sarah was invited to speak at teacher conferences and the school has sold the book to teachers worldwide. "I get great feedback about the book," she says. "It gives teachers the basic information on how to get a garden curriculum started in any environment," says Sarah.

Although the activities are based on her experience gardening year round at the Good Shepherd Montessori School in Texas, Sarah feels the curriculum is applicable even in colder climates and in non-Montessori based schools. "Any educational setting with a garden would benefit from these ideas of how to integrate the garden into their curriculum," she says.

This book has been a labor of love for Sarah. All proceeds go to the development of more garden activities at the school. Now that her children are older, Sarah is a teacher at Good Shepherd Montessori School, and she is able to enjoy working with children in the garden on a daily basis. "The next step is to work on the curriculum for the older grades," she says.

With her boundless energy, love of gardening and kids, and teaching ability, Sarah Hester has become a source of inspiration for other elementary teachers to emulate.

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