Imaginations take flight like butterflies in a garden, and all children should have a little plot of land where their minds and hearts can bloom.
Last Spring I found something unexpected germinating at Larchmont Elementary,
where my son goes to school. He grabbed my hand at pick-up time and pulled me to his class garden bed out back. “Mom, I gotta show you what we’ve grown,” with an enthusiasm he usually reserves for the latest episode of Japanese anime on the home computer. I was sure it must be a carrot or sweet pea, the only vegetables that have been certified as edible by my boy, but to my astonishment, he led me to a bumper crop of radishes, pulled one from the ground, washed it off at the rain barrel, and popped it in his mouth.
My child ate a radish! Of course my first thought was that he was not my boy. clearly a body snatcher has taken him. But it was my child, professing an eternal love of radishes. After this declaration, he took me on a tour showing me how the children had propagated native plants, experimented with companion crops, painted tiles with their art teacher to label the beds, and taken soil samples with their science class as a hands-on activity connected to the SOLs.
He explained that once a month he even eats lunch in the garden instead of the cafeteria, and it is his favorite place at school.
After this testimonial I became a garden mom. Soon I discovered that I am part of a movement spreading from the White House to the empty lots of central cities and to schoolyards across the country. These education gardens are taking root across the nation because they speak to the challenges of our times: reducing childhood obesity, promoting sustainable agriculture, connecting what we teach our children in the classroom to the world they experience, fostering creativity, and building strong, self-reliant communities. To quote the National Gardener’s Association:
Youth gardening programs represent a tremendous opportunity for children to understand and explore the natural world, as well as learn first-hand the benefits of growing, harvesting, and eating healthy foods. It’s called the “people-plant connection,” and every child deserves an opportunity to have access to this relationship.
Now that I have sunk my hands into the rich soil of school gardens, I believe that you can teach almost anything to young children in such a place and know it will take root. You can read Shakespeare, “a rose by another name would surely smell as sweet,” and have children smell the roses planted by our soon to be completed storybook reading stage. You can teach the 3rd grade curriculum on decomposition and the food chain while turning compost. You can have the children paint a mural of flowers and do the math to layout new flowerbeds. Imaginations take flight like butterflies in a garden, and all children should have a little plot of land where their minds and hearts can bloom.
And it’s not just Larchmont Elementary that’s sprouting a garden; St. Patrick’s Catholic School and Norview High School are turning over some great ideas in their schoolyards as well. Norview High is demonstrating the benefits of gardening for all with their Green Thumb Team program for special needs students. For two years, lead Teacher Paula Echols and her teaching assistant Sabrina Beach have been instructing students on how to grow cool season crops such as collards, parsley, lettuce and radishes as part of a work experience curriculum. The members of the Green Thumbs learn, not only about both the plant life cycle, but about the business cycle, too. The produce the students grow is sold at the Five Points Community Farm Market on Church Street.
Ms. Beech underscores the many ways working in the garden helps her team members. By planting vegetables from seed, our students learn where there food comes from, how to work as a team with different tasks, and how to communicate with each other and with public when they sell what they have grown. It is clear from listening to the teachers describe their program that the greatest harvest from the garden is the moment when the students sell or share what they have grown with others. That is the moment that they learn that there is value to their work, giving them a well-deserved sense of accomplishment.
At St. Patrick’s, Master Gardener Sheila Jessen has developed an after-school garden program called Li’l Sprouts. She works with the youngest students at the school to grow vegetables and herbs. “It’s all part of our focus on community,” Ms. Jessen explains. “We always emphasize the importance of giving back and so we donate what the children grow.” When the children at St. Patrick’s harvest their broccoli and potatoes they are given to the Catholic Workers program to feed the homeless.
As I spend more time puttering in these school gardens, I have discovered that they are places of deep reconnection for the students, parents, and teachers that tend them. They reconnect us with nature and its cycles, and with each other as we work as a team, and our wider community. Not a bad harvest from a few vegetable beds.