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I was told this story by a local 5th grade teacher, and thought it was worth sharing. It seems that she was very excited and interested in getting her kids outside - into the school yard as way to help them connect to all sorts of issues and concepts in a personal and local manner. Sometimes when she took the class outside things went well - the kids listed to instructions, they explored, asked questions, and made connections between what they saw and flt right there with ideas they were discussing back in the classroom.

At other times, however, the kids were just hard to manage. They couldn't stand still - often chasing each other and doing all sorts of energetic activities.

Sometimes the behavior was great and they learned a lot, but too often, they were just too antsy and fidgety. But she couldn't figure out why they were acting up on certain occasions.

She kept track of the time of day they went outside - and saw no pattern.

She looked at subject matter - no pattern.Weather - no.

One day, while watching the kids head out to recess, she figured it out. When she took the class out of one side door or front door of the building, the activities went well. When she used the other side door - the same one used to head out for recess - the kids would be much more of a challenge. The children had "learned" - not necessarily conscious knowledge - that when they went out that one door, they would be running around and burning off energy. By using that door, she was setting up expectations for a different type of behavior than she really wanted. 

To test this, she tried taking the class out through one of the other doors, then walking them around to the places they were to investigate. Success - better attention! Now she merely avoids the "recess" door and has much more success - even out on the play field.

Gardens can be spaces where young people come together to create connections with one another, with place, and with food. Furthermore, gardens can support students in becoming open-minded, open-hearted agents of positive change in their communities.

One way to intentionally build community in the garden is to create a garden based community agreement that is revisited every day with your students.

Tasting Tour:

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Before you lead your students through a tasting tour of the garden, it is important you go over a few important rules about harvesting plants with care. Remind them that they should only eat the plants that you invite them to eat, and to always ask before tasting something new. Be sure to tell them we will only be picking a little bit of every plant we eat because we share the garden with lots of other people who would love to taste the garden too. Going over these rules reinforces how it is important that we care for ourselves, for the plants and for others. Once the rules are made clear, you can encourage them to build a connection with place and food by inviting them to taste some of the plants that are growing in the garden.

Sunflower Planting:

Ask the students to look for some similarities between what people need to grow as a community and what plants need to grow as you go over the instructions. Provide them with an example, such as some plants like to grow close to each other and some plants need lots of space and some people like to be around lots of other people while others like to spend more time on their own.

Monica2As you show them how to plant the sunflower, emphasize that gardening is about caring and that we are making a home for this seed. Tell them about The Secret of the Seed (http://wiki.islandwood.org/index.php?title=Secret_of_the_seed) and emphasize how seeds tell us exactly how they want to be planted, just like people might tell us exactly what they need by using verbal or non-verbal communication. Finally, discuss how to take care of the seed so that it can grow into a strong sunflower full of its own seeds. This section provides a great opportunity to add parallels between plant care and taking care of the people around us. For instance, tell them that they need lots of sunshine so it is important to put it in a place where it can get sunshine, to check in with the plant every other day by looking at its body language and how dry the soil is, and that when it becomes about a foot tall it will be ready to be planted outside.

Once you are done planting, ask them: “What might be some of the similarities between what people need to grow as a community and what plants need to grow?” This section might be difficult for students whose abstract thought has not developed enough to see the parallels so be ready to scaffold them as needed.

The Community Agreement:

Before you start this section, you will need a large paper with sunflower seeds drawn at the bottom with each of the students names on it and a line to demonstrate the soil above them (reference the picture below).

Building on the previous discussion you are going to ask the students: “What do we need to grow as a team this week?” As the students provide you with answers, have students write them down near their seed.

Students are usually quick to provide you with big concepts like respect, cooperation, communication and team work. It is imperative that you push them to break these down into specific things they can do. For example, if a student suggests the word respect ask them to break that down for the team. Ask, “What does respect look like?” this tends to help them think of a concrete way we can show respect such as, listening to one another. Here is a link to demonstrate how to push the students to provide you with more concrete examples of how they can work as a team: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XF8zL2TRxG0.

Revisiting the Community Agreement:

This is section of the lesson is vital because it reinforces to the students that they are part of a community that will support their growth. They are responsible for their own growth and responsible for supporting their community’s growth too.

At the beginning of the day circle up the students and lay the community agreement in the middle of the circle. Ask them to read what we wrote in the soil yesterday. Then ask them to choose one of those things to focus on for the day but to make sure they keep that to themselves. It will be their personal goal for the day and they will get an opportunity to share it with the group later in the day. Once they have chosen something, ask them to grow a stem about the length of their hand. Setting an intention for the day is their first opportunity to grow today.  

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At the end of the day, circle up the students around the sheet again so you can go through an accountability circle. You should start by modeling what you are going to expect them to do.  Share what your intention was for the day and choose a quiet raised hand to share how they noticed you work on your intention that day. For instance, you might have chosen “be positive” as your intention and a student might put their hand up and share, “I noticed you being positive when you encouraged us to keep going when we were tiered.” After the student notices you, you can grow your sunflower the length of your hand. Having worked on your intentions is their second opportunity to grow.

Now the student who noticed you will share his/her intention and any student who has not noticed yet can raise their hand. You can only “notice” someone in your group once; this is important because it ensures that everyone participates and is accountable for their own growth and for the growth of their community members. It can get harder to notice one another as less students are allowed to raise their hands to notice one another, so make sure that you are the last one to notice. This ensures the last student will not be left without someone noticing them.

By the end of the accountability circle everyone should have grown twice that day. You can revisit the community agreement as many times as you think is necessary for your group or class need to. One way you could ensure that it lasts longer is to change how tall they grow every time, for instance they could only be growing an inch every time.

Growing a Sunflower:

Before this section, you will need to have cut out paper in the shape of a sunflower seed, about the size of your hand. You should have as many seeds as you have students.

The last time you go through the accountability circle, the students should draw the sunflower instead of the stem. Take this opportunity to celebrate how much they have grown as a community. Share with them that they have grown so much this week that they have their very own seed to plant in another community of their choice. Once you have celebrated, hand them each a sunflower seed and ask them to write down something they have learned in this community that they would like to share with another community they are a part of.

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During your conclusion, you should take the chance to circle back to the sunflowers they planted, and will take home, as reminders of what they have learned and what they want to share with their own community.

The garden is full of opportunities to use metaphors that apply to building community and to personal growth. This lesson intentionally takes advantage of this by creating a structure in which students can draw connections between tangible elements of the garden and abstract concepts such as building community. 

For environmental educators who teach diverse groups of students, it may be difficult to predict how comfortable students of different backgrounds will be when foisted into an outdoor learning environment. Students who grew up going camping with their families bring entirely different perspectives to the learning experience than students who have never spent significant time exploring or learning in the outdoors. With students of all backgrounds, the challenge of nurturing a level of security, curiosity, and ultimately, love, for the natural world requires finding ways to make these spaces emotionally accessible and intriguing. In my experience, if there is one outdoor learning setting that consistently fosters emotional connection and excitement in diverse groups of students, it is an edible garden.

Annie ArticleWe all have emotional connections to food. Foods hearken memories of specific places, connect us with our cultural heritage, and inform our relationships with loved ones and caretakers. For many of us, food carries complex personal, social, or historical baggage. Whoever we are, for better or for worse, food directly impacts our daily experience of the world. Food is so pervasive that many of us never take the time to consider what it means to us or says about who we are. Bringing students to a garden creates a context to explore these topics and more.

One of my favorite garden lessons involves harvesting herbs together as a group and using them to make tea or bread. IslandWood’s garden educator, Jen Prodzinski, begins these lessons by asking students to go around and share a food that they have made themselves, and who taught them how to make it. It is a brilliant question—simple enough to answer, but with rich emotional weight. Students share about making tortillas in Mexico with their grandmothers, harvesting vegetables in their home gardens with their parents, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with their older siblings, and on and on. Suddenly, everyone has an emotional entry into the lesson at hand.

Through considering their existing relationships to food, students begin to see that this outdoor learning space is a place to which they already have a connection—perhaps even a place where they can find comfort and belonging. Further, when students take on the task of making food together in the garden, they strengthen their relationships with the land and one another, fostering or enhancing their senses of place and community.

Beyond cultivating these emotional connections, a garden provides a rich opportunity for intellectual engagement, in that it can take the familiar and transform it into something strange and new. In mainstream American culture, many people do not see the processes that go in to producing the food they eat every day. Using the garden to help students trace familiar foods back to the soil and sun creates abundant moments of surprise and delight.

Using a garden as a jumping off point in this way, environmental educators can establish a relationship of trust, emotional connection, and mutual sharing with students, a powerful foundation for later lessons that might push them further from their comfort zones. By beginning in a space where all students can find personal meaning, we can help students understand that, whoever they are and whatever their experience, nature is a place for them. 

For the past school year, I’ve been taking groups of students to the garden every week, where we learn about everything from plant life to how to properly use a knife. Garden education seems to be highly undervalued in our society compared to standardized curriculum, yet it seems to provide broader life lessons than classroom curriculum. In the next decade, I’d love to see that change. The amount of education that can come from a garden is endless. Gardens aren’t just for learning how to grow plants, the education goes far beyond that and the garden educators at IslandWood continue to dazzle me with new things I can teach my students.

  1. Garden1 MZwangHealthy Lifestyle: In the United States, the number of children diagnosed as overweight or obese is growing at an epidemic pace and the number of children who are considered unfit is at an all-time high. This should be the cue for us to take preventative action.

    Garden programs can work to combat this epidemic by teaching students about healthy lifestyle choices, not just nutritionally, but physically as well. It takes a lot of hard work to grow a garden, and when it’s ready to harvest, the payoff is a highly nutritious bounty.

  2. Community Building and Social Development: Lessons in community building and social development aren’t graded in schools, but are equally important (I’d even argue more important) than academic achievement. Children need to learn how to develop a strong sense of community to ensure that our society can continue to operate successfully.

    Gardens create opportunities for students to work cooperatively and share responsibilities. They will learn negative consequences when they forget to water or let forget to close the gate behind them, but the garden will also provide positive reinforcement for proper care when it comes time to harvest and eat.

    Gardening builds confidence, self-esteem, and pride as students watch their hard work pay off into beautiful, fruitful gardens. It also teaches the value of patience and hard work, which are the foundation to a good work ethic.

  3. Student Engagement: Learning in the garden offer students a unique perspective on learning. Gardens are exciting places full of surprises, thus making student engagement a simpler task than it can be in a classroom.

    Using garden spaces to supplement academic lessons also addresses the needs of students with different learning styles to absorb classroom content in a different way that is more suitable to them.  

  4. Environmental Stewardship: For many students, a school garden is the only chance they have to get close to nature and get their hands dirty. Many students lack access to garden space because of their living situations or choose to participate in organized sports or indoor activities.

    Through gardening, students get the opportunity to engage in small agricultural practices and explore the interconnections between the biotic and abiotic factors that sustain life and garner a stronger understanding of the natural world.

  5. Garden2 MZwangThe Story of Food: I used to work for a small nonprofit in Montana whose goal was to get urban students to rural Montana to show them “where their stuff comes from.” The idea was to bring students to the source of their materials, so a cattle ranch to show them where their beef comes from, a mine to talk about the copper in their electronics, a farm to show them where their grains (and other food) comes from, and I think the garden parallels this mission quite well. As far as a lot of children are concerned, their food “comes from the store,” which is true in part, but the path to the store is far more complicated and can be difficult to understand if there is no tangible way for students to see the source. School gardens provide a more affordable, accessible solution to learning where your food originates than traveling across the country to see it first hand.

  6. Cooking Skills: The outdoor school where I’ve been teaching for the last ten months, IslandWood, has a fabulous program in their garden called Soil to Snack. For this activity, students spend two hours in the garden harvesting food and herbs that they will turn into a delicious snack and tea with the help of the garden educators and an IslandWood chef. With guidance from the chef, the students do all the prep work, which includes chopping, slicing, grinding, grating, and whatever else needs to be done. The chef begins every lesson with a quick “knife safety” talk and demonstrates the proper way to hold the knife and the food to be chopped, a skill that some of these kids have never used and will likely never be taught in any other lesson at school.

  7. Garden3 MZwangFood Justice: School gardens can be a great way to address food justice issues at school. Because most school cafeterias cannot afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for their meals, students who rely on free and reduced lunch programs for one or two meals a day aren’t getting adequate nutrition. If a school’s garden space is large enough, students can help grow the food that is incorporated into school meals.

    Space can be a limiting factor for many schools, especially those in urban settings. Garden education can be parlayed into community projects for students to help transform previously unused space into edible space that can then be donated to those who have little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Although gardens aren’t a primary focus of most formal educators, they are fabulous places to supplement academic subjects with hands-on learning experiences. Childhood experiences with nature help to shape the way that one views the environment as an adult. Garden time as a child helps to establish important connections with nature that will instill a level of appreciation and respect for green spaces and nature that students carry into adulthood. Plus, gardening is a skill that can be used for a lifetime and should be learned at an early age.