Like horticulture in general, the school garden has become very popular during the pandemic. Families and teachers say the practical lessons can be applied to many subjects.
Finding the expertise, manpower, and funding to keep a school garden going can be difficult. But some experts and teachers find creative ways to make it work.
“Gardens are a great way to bring children outside with a purpose. With gardens, children can see a beginning, a middle, and an end of their project with tangible results, ”says Susan Hobart, a retired elementary school teacher at Lake View Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, who now oversees the school’s large garden with 12 raised beds.
“The gardens relax the children and give them a completely different perspective that they would not only have at their desk,” she says.
Every spring, as part of the school program, plant seedlings are grown through a training program in a nearby state prison. A church group arrives during the spring break to prepare the garden for the children to return, and an AmeriCorps volunteer takes care of the garden during the summer.
“If we had to buy the seedlings, they would cost $ 3 each, and we could never afford that,” says Hobart.
“When you look at your relationships and the community around you and all the other networks out there, there are plenty of creative ways to find help.”
Interest in school gardens soared when Michelle Obama started a White House garden and invited schoolchildren to help, says Toby Adams, who directs the 3-acre Edible Academy at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where schoolchildren can learn about the Learn how to grow food. Interest has increased again since the beginning of the pandemic.
School gardens can provide hands-on lessons in health, science, social studies, and even humanities and arts classes.
“Fortunately, the big trend is now that there are more and more organizations and support networks, especially regional networks, that support school gardens,” says Adams. “And online learning has really exploded since the pandemic.”
“Giving children the opportunity to go outside, get their hands dirty and find worms, especially if their teachers are excited about it – that’s huge,” he says.
For schools that don’t have space for a small garden, turning to local botanical gardens and parks can sometimes be the solution.
“We’re in the Bronx, which is essentially six-story apartment buildings. There’s little space and vandalism, and it’s difficult to find a good place for 30 kids, not to mention issues like access to water, ”says Adams.
“Outdoor gardening doesn’t have to be a big deal. It could be a container garden, a hydroponic garden – there are all kinds of gardens and ways it can function, ”he says.
Hobart suggests finding a Master Gardener program, which is sometimes offered by universities, as graduates must do a number of hours of freelance work in order to receive their certification. “It took us 10 years to get here, but we made it,” she says.
Nathan Larson, who leads the Cultivate Health Initiative, a collaborative effort between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and statewide partners to support Wisconsin school gardens, says his aha moment came when he realized the group had two gardens within a radius of each 8 km supported others and neither knew the other existed.
“It became clear that teachers and parents involved with school gardens felt isolated and didn’t know who to turn to,” says Larson, who wrote the free downloadable book Teaching in Nature’s Classroom.
At the national level, two important resources for school gardens are the National Farm to School Network and the School Garden Support Organization Network.
There is also the National Children and Youth Garden Symposium organized by the American Horticulture Society to train teachers and others. The symposium takes place in a different part of the country every year; it has taken place online for the past two years.
Life Lab, based in Santa Cruz, California, offers workshops for educators across the country on engaging young people in gardens and farms. The Junior Master Gardener Program is a youth gardening program run by the Texas A&M University Cooperative Extension Network. Other resources for teachers and others include the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, Edible Schoolyard Network, Slow Food USA School Garden Network, and Big Green.
Ron Finley is an outspoken advocate of the transformative forces that educate city kids about seeds and breeding. His non-profit Ron Finley project aims to “change the culture around food”.
Finley recalls being amazed as a boy to see “a seed literally self-destruct to become food” as part of a class project at his school in South Central Los Angeles.
“Having a garden in a school is just as important as any other education,” says Finley. “The act of gardening teaches you where our food source comes from and teaches you to respect the soil. When children have a reverence for the ground, they have a reverence for themselves and a respect for this planet. Gardening should be an integral part of the curriculum. Gardening is not a hobby, but a life’s work. I see this as one of the most valuable lessons humankind has. “
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