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Playing in the dirt

A gray wall brightened with chalk illustrations and flower boxes nestled in a Central Point alley make for a curious classroom, but it fits Taneea Browning's vision exactly — right down to the dusty gravel floor.

"Inevitably everyone has a story in their childhood about playing in the dirt," she says.

Browning and a team of elementary school teachers are monitoring a small cohort of kids here on a summer afternoon. They move from one end of the garden to the other several times per minute to keep up with the children, who are racing toy cars through large chunks of PVC pipes, pumping water from a catch-water pipe, making gravel angels, and demanding attention be given to a watermelon growing in a garden box.

Browning is the executive director of Direct Involvement Recreation Teaching, or DIRT, a nonprofit that helps Central Point students learn by getting their hands dirty in places like this, its first outdoor learning center.

"Children want to learn in certain ways, and they learn really well by holding things and touching things," she says.

Since completion of its first garden, DIRT has been assembling resources to build more facilities for students of all ages and their parents. The outdoor learning center used to be a vacant lot until last May, when Browning turned it into an urban gardening project. In addition to a space for play, it is used to teach kids about pollinators such as bees and bats.  

As DIRT began to grow, Browning developed a five-year plan to install a hands-on learning facility at every elementary school. By the coming fall, she and three other board members hope to complete an "Edible Forest" at Mae Richardson Elementary, where children will learn how to grow fruits and vegetables and manage pest problems. They're also planning a "School of Fish" facility at Jewett Elementary, which will teach kids about sustainable agriculture and symbiosis with a codependent fish tank and hydroponic garden setup.

Several teachers volunteer in leading students through lessons and maintenance sessions in the gardens. Parents also are involved, helping to supervise activities at community events and participating in classes. Browning herself began DIRT as a parent seeking greater opportunities for her child to learn, and she said that having parents benefit as well was unexpectedly rewarding.

"Just watching the adults' eyes come alive while they hear about kids playing in the dirt is incredible," she says.

Parents and teachers aren't the only community members offering their involvement. Each project is supported heavily by local businesses such as Shooting Star Nursery, which donated plants for the first garden. Browning said J&M Landscape Inc. and Rogue Compost were among other donors of resources, and the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation gave DIRT a $4,500 grant to put toward the next two projects.

"DIRT’s approach to restoring these gardens, raising foods and growing food really resonated with the foundation," says Executive Director Carma Mornarich.

DIRT will present designs for the two new facilities in the Seven Feathers Event Center (formerly Compton Arena) at the Jackson County Fair July 22-26. Employees from Umpqua Bank will volunteer to run the display, which will wrap up by 7 o'clock each night, according to Browning.

"No one wants to see a toddler in the dirt after 7 p.m.," she says with a laugh.

Reach reporting intern Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@mailtribune.com.

Ben Claborn, 5, of Central Point makes a gravel angel Wednesday while playing at the new Dirt Park Learning Center built by the nonprofit group Direct Involvement Recreation Teaching in Central Point. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch