Yea, it’s Groundhog Day and the hope of spring is once again a reality. The Groundhog saw his shadow and we start to count the days – whether it’s real or not. It is also the time when seeds start to appear in stores, advertisements focus on spring and summer activities, garden tips begin on TV; even the fashion industry begins to show more color. At the same time schools begin to think about next year and how they will both recruit and bring in the next crop of 5 year olds for Kindergarten – or literally – children’s garden.
Gardens –the perfect metaphor for schooling. Throughout the K – 12 process, this metaphor is used frequently. Words like produce, cultivate, nurture, and growth are all terms that are used both in education and gardening. Therefore it is reasonable to think that every school should be involved in gardening at one level or another. However this is not the case. In fact, finding any greenery in a school is more often the anomaly than the reality. This needs to be reversed. Gardens should be a focal point of our education system.
The origin of education began with the concept of feeding ourselves. Whether it was hunting, gathering or cultivating, the skills needed to sustain human existence had to be passed down from generation to generation. Yes, it was informal education, and it happened by doing rather than sitting and getting told how to do it later. Older children followed their father (usually but not always) out hunting where they learned how to track, observe, be silent and use an appropriate weapon. The younger ones accompanied their mothers (usually) as they foraged for nuts, roots, edible plants etc. Later, when humans began to settle in one place, children worked along-side their family members as they turned the soil, planted it and protected it. They learned when to plant, what to plant, how to nurture the plants, when to cultivate and how to store produce and save seeds. While it may not have been direct instruction, it was teaching and learning none the less. This is how it had been (for thousands of years) until about the late 1940’s.
Then things changed. Along came the suburbs which swallowed up farms. The ease of instant mashed potatoes and frozen TV dinners took over. Farming itself became much less diversified with wheat, corn, and soy leading the way in mono crop farming. And then the rise of the factory / industrial farm system began with companies like Cargill or Con Agra growing rapidly. All of this removed most of our children away from the food production routine. Many of today’s children do not have a clue where their food comes from or how it was produced. They remain unaware that the hamburger they eat probably came from factory raised cattle that eat primarily corn and then become one of the leading contributors to climate change with their waste.
At the same time our schools act more and more like the factory farms replacing the smaller diverse farm. School curriculum is often tailored to one size fits all. Test outcomes are based on the masses not on the individualized growth of the student. Students are frequently sedentary, much like the cattle in the factory farm. Rote learning is still prevalent while the visual and fine arts are cut more and more. Ferdinand the Bull would be sad.
Schools do have the means to change that, and luckily some are starting to catch on. However school garden do take work. Time and seasonal management must be taken into account. How to find and efficiently use space, whether indoors or out, must be investigated; usually through a political lens. How do you get (and pay for) all of the supplies needed to grow a garden? Coordinating the care and watering of the garden when school is not in session takes commitment. And who or how will the produce be used must be discussed. None of this is easy.
None the less the pay-off is well-worth the effort. Creating a garden creates an atmosphere of cooperation and a sense of community. Students must be active and out of their seats. Academic subjects from math, science, social studies and language arts can be easily connected to the theme of a garden. Visual Arts can be inspired - think about how much our classic artwork is tied to topics related to gardens, such as Monet’s water gardens. And best of all, students begin to gain a sense of where our food comes and the benefits of eating healthy locally produced food.
Luckily there are organizations and models to help schools address the potential difficulties. Kids Gardening is an organization that provides ideas and resources to help a school start a gardening project. They provide grants, resources, lesson plans and more. The Dowling Community Garden has worked cooperatively for years with Dowling School in Minneapolis and they maintain beautiful garden plots. The Jeffers Foundation has a school garden program that also provides grants and information. Then there is the example (as seen on TED Talks) of Steven Ritz, an urban educator in the Bronx, who has helped create a movement of urban gardening. He makes it almost seem easy. Beyond the Walls Education can help a school coordinate and address these issues.
So as we get ready for our next growing season, schools should consider the benefits of growing a garden in their school community. Think about the metaphor of schools as gardens and then put that metaphor to real use. By doing so we will address many educational needs and the final outcome of the product, whether it be the students or the food produced, will be superior to the factories that try to do the same thing.