Editor’s Note: This is the first of four articles on Youth Gardens. Watch for stories on a brand new garden at Conley Elementary, pollinator and butterfly gardens, and a special honor for Gilchrist’s Gardens.
If given the opportunity, most kids dig dirt. How much?
A lot, according to one second grader at Gilchrist Elementary School. Responding to his teacher’s writing prompt, he claimed that he enjoyed the whole school year even better because of working in the school gardens. “I learned at least 50 facts,” he wrote. “When we harvested the garden, it was the best day of my life.”
Maybe every child won’t take to gardening as much as that one did, but with the growing emphasis on hands-on learning, more schools are adding gardens to serve as tools for science and environmental education. Other subjects can be taught through class gardens, too.
“If they are writing down their observations from the garden, then gardening helps increase language skills,” says Chris Parrish, Youth Garden Chair for the Tallahassee Garden Club (TGC).
Garden-based nutrition education can motivate children to eat healthier while increasing their physical activity. When students grow a variety of vegetables, research shows they are likely to try new foods and develop healthier eating habits.
In addition to nutrition, science learning, and environmental awareness, schools have observed that gardens increase students’ motivation to learn, assumption of responsibility, and cooperation with peers. They can also influence a sense of collective pride in their school.
Gardening teaches responsibility through watering plants and weeding. It encourages sharing and thoughtfulness. “Children learn to leave bright red strawberries in place so others can enjoy how red and beautiful they are,” says Parrish.
But gardening is not all rosy experiences, and even the failures become a lesson. One year the Gilchrist Elementary potato harvest was skimpy due to pests. “We talked about being disappointed and that sometimes crops fail,” Parrish says.
Many community groups and businesses have helped local children with gardens. For example, the beds at Gilchrist Elementary were made by Boy Scouts in 1997. In the years since, volunteers from TGC have helped children plant the beds and have put in additional beds in other areas of the school. A number of local nurseries have contributed supplies.
TGC volunteers support several other schools using gardens in their curriculum. They include Conley, Hawks Rise, the School for Adults with Disabilities, and the School of Math and Science. Each of these schools has at least one teacher enthusiastic about working with students in the garden. Occasionally, TGC also helps the School of Arts and Science Centre, which maintains a school roof garden.
Florida State University Department of Dietetics, community garden partners, and parent volunteers all assist Kate Sullivan Elementary School with their garden, according to teacher Amon Rwito. The raised beds, originally built by FAMU students, are usually filled with vegetables like kale, collard greens, broccoli, lettuce, arugula and potatoes.
As with other schools, Kate Sullivan’s gardens are used across the curriculum. As part of math class, students use rulers to measure how much taller a plant is. In science, they learn what plants need in order to grow, and they learn about energy source and transformation, and environmental stewardship. In art, they draw the plants and label their parts. The garden is also part of health education, including nutrition, healthy eating and exercise.
Damayan Project reaches out
Another local group that introduces children to the joys of gardening is the Damayan Project. They currently have garden workshop sessions at the Leverne Payne Community Center in Frenchtown every Thursday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.
“We have 10-15 consistent children that love to help in the garden and learn how to plant, maintain, and harvest vegetables,” says Henry Gwynn, Damayan Project’s communications director.
Damayan also does gardening workshops with students of all ages at the Frenchtown Farmers Market every third Saturday from noon-1 p.m. The organization also helps four school gardens with seasonal maintenance: Sealey, Pineview, The School of Math and Science, and WT Moore.
“It is amazing to see how people come to life when they eat greens or potatoes from the ground they worked with for the first time,” Gwynn says. “There seems to be something important about experiencing our connection to the earth by supporting a plant's growth that in turn supports and nourishes our growth.”
Gwynn learned about this connection when he was 6 years old. “The Damayan Garden project taught me how to grow food by installing a garden at my school, The School of Arts and Sciences, 21 years ago. I have been growing ever since and I run a profitable small farm as my main job.”
Growing a school garden
School gardens don’t have to stop after elementary school. Even FSU has its own sustainable organic garden. FSU’s gardens are located between the FSU Circus and Band Practice Field. Students and organizations can learn how to grow their own food and find a sanctuary away from their busy academic lives. Groups can rent a bed for $30 a semester. Individuals can rent one for $15 a semester. If an individual rents a bed they will be assigned one half of a bed and will share the other half with another individual.
Those interested in establishing a garden at their school will find an abundance of online resources — even Garden Bingo games. The University of Florida and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have developed the “Grow to Learn School Gardening Guide,” which is a great place to start.
At the School of Math and Science, UF/IFAS friends used the “YUM!” curriculum in the second grade nutrition classes this year, while their kindergarteners used the “Grow It, Try It, Like It” curriculum.
The Tallahassee Garden Club is willing to help schools establish school gardens.
“When I get a request for a garden, it usually comes from a teacher who is willing to partner with us,” says Chris Parrish. “The garden club helps, but we don’t do everything. It takes more than just saying a school wants a garden. It takes lots of cooperation with faculty and administration. There has to be stability and commitment.”
The effort pays off, Parrish says, when a second grader points to a drop of water shimmering on a cabbage leaf. “Look at that!” the students says. “Isn’t it beautiful?”