Julia Parker-Dickerson, Director of Education Programmes at KidsGardening.org explores school gardening in New York.
Housed together in a four-story brown brick structure surrounded by brownstones and apartment buildings in Brooklyn, New York are two schools: Brooklyn Arts & Science Elementary School (PS 705) and the Explore Exceed Charter School (Exceed). These combined schools in the Crown Heights neighborhood have dedicated 1,000 square feet of their courtyard to an important cause: growing healthy food. A diverse edible landscape, the new school garden includes multiple fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers – all planted for the purpose of giving children, teachers and parent volunteers an opportunity to engage in the process of growing, preparing and eating fresh and healthy foods. In 2014, the schools enjoyed their first harvest: a large variety of leafy greens, tomatoes, squash, potatoes and much more.
The school garden installation was led by KidsGardening.org in collaboration with NBC’s ‘Today Show’, as part of their ‘Shine a Light’ series, a campaign to support worthy causes throughout 2014. Together with KidsGardening.org, ‘Today Show’ host Carson Daly took the lead in bringing the garden to the school as part of the effort to improve the health and nutrition of children in underprivileged communities.
KidsGardening.org is a division of the National Gardening Association, a non-profit that has been working with schools to educate the next generation of gardeners for over 40 years. The mission of KidsGardening.org is to get children and their communities into the garden, growing and eating healthy vegetables and fruits while also providing opportunities for educators to enhance the teaching of academic concepts through hands-on garden experience.
PS 705 and Exceed are home to over 400 students, grades Pre-K to 5. The schools are new to the neighborhood and their presence brings a youthful energy that has rallied the community and parent volunteers.
With the installation of the school garden, the school has seen a dramatic increase in parent participation and interest in programming and garden maintenance. Before the garden was put in, Sandra Beauvoir Soto, principal of PS 705, said:
“It’s all concrete. It’s asphalt. It’s rubber. It’s hard. And to have something living, breathing, growing, alive – like the children that we serve – I think, is going to be really powerful for them.”
Now that part of the playground has been transformed into a living schoolyard, she exclaims,
“I see green, which is something that’s hard to find here in Brooklyn!”
Now in their second planting season, the school and the community are working together to ensure another season of success. As is the case in so many areas these days, technology has come in handy. Both schools invited parents, teachers, administration and supporting organisations to take part in a conversation about garden planning using Google Groups, a free service that allows for sharing of images, documents, and emails. This let all the participants keep a running record of conversations and ideas. An electronic calendar service and email reminders have also helped the school invite interested volunteers to dates for garden clean-up and plantings. Electronic calendars also provide reminders for times to plant and harvest and help gardeners keep on top of watering schedules.
Effective planning and organizing has helped the schools share responsibilities among classrooms. Labeling the raised beds with spray painted numbers makes it easy for classrooms to know which beds they are responsible for maintaining. The beds are also assigned by type of planting. Some beds will serve as perennial flower gardens while others are reserved for vegetables. PS 705 and Exceed now work closely together to take full advantage of the garden space. Not only are they growing together, they are sharing resources and engaging students and parents from both schools in the Trailblazers’ Garden Club.
School gardens grow much more than plants. Youth gardening grows healthy, engaged learners who benefit from improved nutrition, enhanced academic achievement, and better awareness of the world around them. In terms of health, the garden promotes physical activity and helps improve students’ knowledge of good nutrition, broadening their tastes in terms of food choices, and increasing their consumption of vegetables and fruits. As an academic experience, hands-on lessons and activities in the garden engage students in the learning process in ways that increase knowledge retention in key subject areas. Youth gardens are also effective in creating a vital connection to the natural world by instilling an appreciation for nature and a sense of environmental stewardship. A sense of responsibility and ownership for the school and community develops as students contribute to the growth and beautification of their garden as well as being able to share the harvest with neighbours and families in need.
Garden installations conducted by KidsGardening.org are made possible by the combined efforts of volunteers from the school and surrounding community, support from non-profit partners, as well as material and monetary donations, and benefit from the expertise and guidance of the dedicated staff from KidsGardening.org.
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This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 110). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.