by Marilyn Wyzga
With watering can in hand, a first grader earnestly speed-walks across the grass, finds a pepper plant in need of a drink, and slowly drains her can around its base. She scoots back and tags her teammate in the waiting line; he quickly scuttles off to the basket of mulch, scoops a two-handed fistful, and tucks it around the base of a young tomato plant. Joyful cheers from their classmates urge them on. The “Garden Relay” ends with the harvester carrying back a single spinach leaf in her basket, and each team member gets a taste.
We’re concluding a seven-week season of spring gardening classes around the Conval School District in New Hampshire’s Monadnock Region. Our “Garden Relay” is one way to make garden care (a.k.a. maintenance) fun, exciting, and good learning for young people. This is the goal of the Cornucopia Project – to make growing food enjoyable and interesting for kids, and an integral part of their classroom curriculum. We are dedicated to planting the seeds for a lifetime of healthy eating and growing.
The Teaching Garden Curriculum
The programming we develop and implement is modeled after successful school garden programs, such as the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA. Students involved in Cornucopia meet with us for one class period each week. Weather willing, we’re out in the garden for every lesson; gentle rains are fine for us and for the plants. Each class has built three raised beds to plant, tend, and harvest.
Students engage in authentic, grade-level-appropriate lessons, as well as meaningful, seasonal work in the garden. Our team of garden teachers has designed the curriculum to meet science frameworks and integrate with concepts the students are studying in the classroom. Together with classroom teachers and students, we explore topics such as living organisms, life cycles of plants and animals, soil components, and composition of compost. Many garden lessons also incorporate literacy, math, and art.
The Growing of Teaching Gardens
The Cornucopia Project illustrates one type of teaching garden developed for schools. It’s no secret that many children today are distanced from their food sources and disconnected from nature. Richard Louv examined this trend along with possible solutions in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods. The book’s release in 2005 sparked a world-wide movement to reconnect children, youth, and families with nature. “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature,” wrote Louv. There is so much value in getting kids outside, digging in the dirt, and becoming excited about plants. These early experiences outdoors lead to a lifelong fascination with growing things.
Making use of the schoolyard for outdoor classrooms, natural playgrounds, wildlife habitat, and vegetable gardens is a growing trend in all kinds of educational settings. Right outside the classroom door, these spaces make use of an underutilized resource, decrease the need for field trip funds, and connect kids to their community. They are opportunities for curiosity and inquiry and for the surprise, delight, and learning that ensue. Not only do students have the opportunity to practice skills and concepts learned in the classroom, such as problem solving and critical thinking in real-life situations, but they enjoy many developmental and social benefits to school garden programming as well. Conval Kindergarten teacher, Virginia Topping, comments, “Garden time provides a hands-on opportunity for my students to care for something over time, and experience the satisfaction of watching something grow.” First-grade teacher, Karen Lowenthal, adds, “Just as important are the lessons being learned on planning ahead, cooperation, and patience.”
Keeping it Local and Organic
Cornucopia takes an entirely organic approach to the garden, and stays as local as possible. We use organically grown and non-GMO seeds, many of which are donated or saved from previous years’ harvests. A local compost supplier, Ideal Compost in Peterborough (which uses local farms for their compost ingredients), fills each of the raised beds. These are built of rough cut hemlock from New England Forest Products, a sustainable enterprise getting its product from within a radius of 75 miles. A form of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) comes into practice as kids learn to pinch garden pests and “throw them into the abyss” as founder, Kin Schilling, is fond of instructing them to do.
Kin Schilling created this nonprofit organization to increase children’s access to healthy food while providing the education necessary for them to make solid choices about healthy eating. She fervently believes the way to do this is to include children in the growing process, from seed to table, and to help them develop a relationship with the natural world around them. The Cornucopia Project now offers classes in all eight elementary schools in the Conval School District in New Hampshire, involving 300 young people in healthy food choices through their school gardens. First grade students take part in garden program lessons during the spring months, and finish the ‘garden cycle’ as they transition to second grade in the fall.
The experience goes home with them as the children introduce their families to gardening, and multiple home gardens have sprung up. Families sign-up for “Weed and Water Clubs” to steward the gardens through the summer months. In this way, they develop ownership for the garden beds, and they get to enjoy whatever harvest is ready when they come to do their maintenance tasks. “The rewards of a school garden reach into every area of a child’s life,” says Kin Schilling. “These experiences awaken the senses, teach sustainable life practices, and build a long-lasting community bond.”
One child at a time, we aim to plant the seed, both literally and figuratively. We strive to engage children in hands-on, minds-on experiences that allow them to establish a direct connection to the earth, and to their food source. Ideally, this also provides children with the basis for a long-lasting relationship with their local environment. A relationship built on curiosity and delight, where kids tickle the soil, sing to the seeds, and remind us that plants need love (along with water, food, air, soil and sun) to grow.
Getting Started Growing YOUR Teaching Garden
Schoolyard habitats and outdoor classrooms are again experiencing a resurgence in interest and support. Helpful resources include your local Cooperative Extension; contact them to speak with specialists in wildlife habitat, farm to school programs, or early childhood education. Antioch University New England hosts a spring “Forest Kindergarten” conference, where you can meet others who grow different kinds of teaching gardens, or help design them. Some landscape design companies specialize in nature-based “play and learn” areas. An array of grants, from seed funds to sustaining dollars, are offered by many large companies as well as organizations dedicated to children’s gardens and outdoor learning. For details, and more ideas, check out the NH Children in Nature website at www.nhchildreninnature.org/resources. There are many paths to a teaching garden; begin by opening the door and stepping outside.
About the Author
Marilyn Wyzga is the lead School Garden Teacher for The Cornucopia Project. The Cornucopia Project is dedicated to teaching sustainable and nourishing life practices to children and young adults by connecting them to the community and land through organic gardening.. For more information, see www.cornucopiaproject.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.