On sunny days, Amira Sanders, a second grader in Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, checks on her Miyawaki forest, a pocket of native plants that she’d helped plant since last year.
“And they were doing perfectly fine,” Amira said. “But when it’s rainy, I can’t go outside to check on the plants because they’re resting and sleeping. I don’t want to disturb them while they’re getting water.”
In a project spearheaded by climate literacy and science teacher Neelam Patil, BUSD has planted four Miyawaki forests so far in an effort to teach children that their voice impacts the conversation around sustainability and climate change.
Patil’s Miyawaki forests are the first to be planted in any school district in California.
With the introduction of a draft of AB-57 to the California legislature by Assemblymember Ash Kalra in December, they may not be the last.
AB-57 seeks to establish a California Pocket Forest Initiative, which would issue grants to public and non-profit organizations in order to densely populate a small plot of urban land with native plants drawing upon the Miyawaki method.
Although Kalra began working on the bill before Patil’s implementation, he did visit and draw inspiration from a BUSD Miyawaki forest.
The bill is scheduled to be first heard by the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources on March 23.
“It’s an interesting convergence,” said Daniel Gluesenkemp, the executive director of the California Institute of Biodiversity, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We’re really seeing a generational change here that is really hopeful. We’re moving from a stance of overly cautious, overly careful, and we got new folks on the ground looking for new solutions. We desperately need real changes in how we live on planet Earth.”
Stephen Collins, the facilities maintenance manager for BUSD, is responsible for sustainability, and worked with Patil to make the Miyawaki forests come to life.
Sometimes, one has to “open your mind and let something new come in,” Collins said. At first, he had concerns about fire hazards, water usage and whether the Miyawaki method would work at all.
But he did his research, and decided to trust the science.
Collins attributes the success of the four BUSD forests to the emphasis the Miyawaki method places on community and returning to native plants and land, as well as Patil’s leadership on the project.
“Stephen took the risk,” Patil said. “I was the spearhead, energy, and he was just like, ‘…yes.’ I don’t think I realized how valuable and important that ‘yes’ was until people were like, ‘Neelam, what you did was impossible.’”
The Miyawaki forests have inspired enthusiasm and advocacy in children, Patil noted. Collins also pointed out that the close density of these particular plants means they compete with each other for sunlight, making them grow faster, making their transformation “palpable and immediate.”
By eliciting a sense of agency and self in children, Patil aims to help her students realize they have a voice.
“They want to be changemakers, whereas I think in the recent past, they weren’t. There was a lot more complacency,” Patil said. “They feel it. They are connected to mother earth. As an adult you think, ‘How do they even connect?’ But for children, they’re connected. There’s no words about it.”
For Amira, the plants will grow right beside her as she continues into third grade next year.
Amira said Patil has given her a love of science, and she takes pride in how much she accomplished when she was just a first grader.
“When I turn nine. I’m literally gonna love, (and) I’m gonna be checking on plants,” Amira said. “I’m gonna be in third grade by then, I’m going to keep checking on them plants because I’m treating them like they’re my babies. They’re my babies.”