DUCK'S NEST PRESCHOOL GARDEN, An Urban/Industrial Vacant Lot... Transformed!

Berkeley, CA

This garden is funded by the preschool proper (Garden Teacher's salary, land lease, port-a-potty rental, art and other supplies) and the parents, largely through fundraising efforts by the Duck's Nest Parents' Association. Depending on their funds, they may provide a monthly allowance or funds for special projects or equipment.
This tile wall funded initial projects; families donated money to paint the tiles.
This garden was previously a vacant lot. It is owned by Haws, the water fountain-making company, and there are three small houses/businesses, a very large warehouse, a grassy lot, and a parking lot on the property as well. The lease is offered to us very inexpensively because the Haws family has many family ties with the preschool owner's family. The vacant lot was covered in crushed gravel and was a storage site for boats, cars, and a huge, broken-down trailer.

Initially, the garden started out with a small play structure and eight raised beds on top of the gravel. Fortunately for us, a husband signed his wife up to be on our Garden Committee when their son started at the preschool. It just so happens that she knew all about landscape design and she and her husband have designed special exhibits all around the world, including Lookout Cove at the Bay Area Discovery Museum! During her tenure at the preschool (three years), she designed the garden and hosted numerous fundraisers and work parties to get the garden built.


School Structure
The school itself is one block away. It has been running since 1985 and the owner lives on site. It is a large school, licensed for 91 2-5-year-olds each day. There are five classrooms with 17 teachers, three administrators, and one custodial staff person.


Class Structure

Classrooms are divided by age, one whole house devoted to all the two-year-olds, one classroom each for three-year-olds, three-and-a-half-year-olds, and four-year-olds, plus a small house for the four-and-a-half-year-olds.


Program Structure
Each class has a "garden day." The children are dropped off at school and the teachers bring them all to the garden when they're ready. They usually eat snack in the garden! The children eat lunch in the garden, weather and age of the children permitting, and go back to school for rest time. Full-time children come back to the garden in the afternoon for pickup.


There was one full-time garden teacher, but I'm currently working 9:00-1:00 and 3:30-5:30. This Fall I'm scheduled to work from 9:00-1:00 only.

Other Practicalities
Each classroom has "garden room parents" who sign up at the beginning of the school year. These room parents help organize work parties and play dates (usually a weekend potluck brunch in combination with maintenance work).
Here are some of the different areas that are set up each day for the children:
Saws are under the table in the closed box.
Using a tape measure.

-Broken Appliances
-Fasteners (e.g. bolts, nails, nuts, self-tapping screws, washers)
-Magnets (strong)
-Metal Parts
-Miter Boxes
-Tape Measures
-Vice Grips

C-clamps serve double-duty as hangers. The bucket of scissors used to be held up with rope, but the children cut it!
Pairs of gloves are put together, through the fence. Each is marked "R" for right and "L" for left.
Miscellaneous items are marked with yellow tape.
Turning tools are marked with green tape, miscellaneous parts with blue.
Hammering tools are marked with red tape.
Stainless steel IKEA bowls hold different types of fasteners. They are put away at night to help prevent rust, and are held to the table using strong magnets that are bolted to the center of the table.
Preschool-age children love to hammer. Self-tapping screws (found at my local hardware store in blue boxes under the "Grabber" brand) facilitate use as fasteners suited both to screwing and hammering.
Rolling lumber cart inspired by "Make" magazine.


Children made their own labels. They recognized that not all preschoolers can read, so they also illustrated each label. Scribble scrabble was their best interpretation for the mess of loose parts. The labels are on both the tops and fronts of each box, and the boxes are also transparent to facilitate ease of finding tools. The boxes are lidded to help prevent rust, as they are stored outside.
I spelled out the words used for each label and the children placed the correct tools next to it to help make their labels.
Discovering the new organization system.
Gloves are used both for working and as dress-up, as are the goggles.
Not all the work at the construction table is construction. One child made a multitude of "castanets."
A log is placed to allow children some destructive and experimental use of the tools. A chair is always found in the area to facilitate adult supervision.

-Set-up of the area is crucial, and must be clean before the children arrive in order to ensure proper use and respect of tools and other objects:
1. All the metal parts and fasteners are attached to a strong magnet in the center of the table or put away in closed bins.
2. Wood must be stored neatly.
3. All the tools must be put in their places.
4. Area must be carefully checked for dangerous objects on the ground.
5. The table and floor must be swept.

The rules are both burned into wood on the fence and on the garden brochure given to all parents and posted on the bulletin board.

-This area has very specific rules. If broken, a child must leave the area and try again on another visit:
1. The area must be supervised by an adult.
2. You must wear shoes.
3. All the tools and fasteners must be kept in the construction area (in my case this is delineated by a line in the concrete).
4. No fighting or snatching.
5. Tools must not be raised above shoulder level.
6. If you hear or see anything drop onto the ground, everyone must stop until the object is picked up.
7. Clean up the area when you are done.
8. You may take the cool things you made home with you!

Real tools are essential!
Allowances for experimentation are crucial! This girl is trying out the differences between a hammer and a mallet.
I don't make the children wear safety glasses, but they often choose to wear them.
Experimenting with spare parts.
Is hammering easier if I turn the piece upside down? No.
Level 6 fun.
A fine example of the work that can be done with preschoolers at the construction table... It took months, but we built a house! It was made from construction work cast-offs and yard trimmings. This was made by the Wood Duck class of three-year-olds. And they used power drills! Once completed, the classroom next door made curtains with hearts sewn on them as a house warming gift, and a big party was held after hours with that classroom's families.
Small wood scraps are repurposed as art supplies.
The tools used to be stored in rope loops, but the onset of rust brought on the ire of the bosses. The new format of storing them in the drawers helps keep them from weather exposure but has also made the area less appealing to both the children and the teachers. I am currently thinking of using CLR to clean them up and applying a micro-oil tool protectant I saw advertised in one of my racing magazines. The rope loops served multiple purposes:
-They provided an organized and efficient means of storing the tools.
-They prevented children who were too impatient to learn how to remove the tools properly from using the tools, thereby preventing dangerous use.
Examples of the toys the children built for themselves.
An old log used for cutting and drilling.
The garden is used for weekend parties. I came in on Monday to find this graffiti. I, for one, can totally appreciate it!
Random book donations, again found on a Monday morning. Thank you, whoever!
by Heather Taylor,