September 6, 2013
We've all known those moments when our gardens have taught us some valuable life skill.
Almost every aspect of the garden experience is instructive. Sometimes, it's having a direct connection to the "law of the farm" from which we learn about the value of putting in effort upfront. Or it's overcoming frustrations with pests, weather and the like. There are also moments of awe cultivated for the web of organisms that cycle nutrients in the soil and maintain balance in the ecology. Regardless, they are always relevant to the process of learning to be a better person, no matter how old we are.
The more advanced gardener will learn about research and planning, ecology and biology, and even gain entrepreneurial insights. In addition to the life skills, the majority of required curriculum in our school system can be taught in a garden. Is it any wonder then, that there are a growing number of schools that are implementing gardens as important and strategic elements of their educational toolbox?
It's not lost on educators that the power of gardening can break through divisive mind-sets about race, class and social groups to heal psychological wounds and cultivate a sense of connection and purpose in a stressful and complex world. There's also a growing understanding of the health benefits of getting kids outside and getting their hands dirty. Physical contact with the soil along with the movement and acts of creation possible in a garden can potentially reduce obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and childhood trauma. Organic, plant-based nutrition is like icing on the cake — but it's much better for you.
"Imagine children addicted to doing something good that won't kill brain cells, clog arteries or make them sick, obese and clueless," says Annie Spiegelman, author of "Talking Dirt: The Dirt Diva's Down-to-Earth Guide to Organic Gardening."
In her experiences with school gardens, Spiegelman plots to turn teenagers into tree-huggers, farmers and flower enthusiasts for life. She says school gardens can help kids visualize how they can have a positive impact on their world — away from their screens. Her perspective is gaining traction.
The state Department of Education's program A Garden in Every School is a testament to the value school gardens have on academic achievement, health, stewardship and social development.
There is a plethora of studies that show that students who participate in school gardening activities score higher on science achievement tests, have more pro-environmental attitudes and are more likely to choose a diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. They also rate higher in levels of maturity, responsibility and interpersonal skills. They are reportedly happier, calmer and have higher levels of self-esteem.
There are now many groups and resources available to make school gardens successful.
Groups such as the California School Garden Network (csgn.org), Life Lab (lifelab.org), the Center for Eco-Literacy (ecoliteracy.org) and Education Outside (educationoutside.org) have helped structure school gardens and provide resources and curriculums for parents and educators so they can create and sustain successful school gardens while teaching to specific academic standards.
The Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, the North Bay Children's Center in Marin and the School Garden Program at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County have taken school garden curriculums and their connections to healthy nutrition to the next level.
Individual schools all over Marin are now appreciating the power of the outdoor classroom. The teaching areas in these school gardens have multiplied and become havens for learning in every subject. The Marin Master Gardeners have helped educators and garden coordinators succeed by addressing issues as their gardens grow.
School gardens still face serious challenges. There are two main problems: Parent involvement and financial resources are sometimes scarce; and there is an awkward summer vacation to contend with when most gardens are at their peak of productivity. Generally, the ebb and flow of school garden activity depends on the actions and devotion of an individual teacher, parent or volunteer and/or when funding from a grant or donation is available. A growing numbers of resources — such as garden-related grants, seasonal successional planting plans, as well as fun and healthy plantings that culminate in garden cooking events that match the school calendar — are all making these common school garden problems less devastating.
Chickens, bees and worms are more common now on school campuses. Genetically modified organisms and pesticides are not. As Spiegelman says, "You must have kale and compost too."
All the trials, tribulations and awkward summer doldrums pale when you have that aha moment with a kid, however, and the challenges are instructional in themselves. So support your local school garden; it's one of the better investments we can make in our communities and our future.