Over the months of April, May, and June, I had the pleasure of observing kids working in the Steele Lane Elementary School Garden Project. First of all, the garden is amazing. And so are the students, teachers and volunteers who manage the program. The first day I was there was a lesson day. The kids were learning about seeds and flowers. As I was quietly observing the lesson, one student says to me,
“Look, do you see this? It’s a seed. I can eat it now, or I put it in the ground and a plant will grow. Or I can save it.”
My eyes grew wide. “Wow”, I said. “That’s incredible.” “I know,” he said.
Why is it important for students to be in the garden growing food? Gardening’s impact on the children is a positive one. The process of planting seeds, nurturing and caring for the plants, and finally eating the food grown in the school garden is beneficial for the kids in many ways.
Engaging, exploring, and learning
One of the first things I noticed during the lesson was that the kids were enjoying learning. They were very enthusiastic and engaged in their projects focused on science, botany, and nutrition. I don’t know if they have the same enthusiasm in the classroom, my guess would be no. Garden-‐based learning is fun. When learning is fun, it is not like work.
Gardening is a physical activity. The kids don’t mind getting dirty one bit. In fact, they enjoy it. I would even say they love it. The class had no problem digging up this huge fava bean plant.
The students were very careful of worms, ladybugs, and other living things they encountered while working in the garden. While digging, bugs and worms were very carefully moved out of harms way. The students were gentle with the natural life around them, and have respect for it. Gardening allows them to explore nature and learn about the natural world.
The gardening program teaches students so much more that what to plant at the correct time of year and which plants are appropriate for our climate. The curriculum includes learning about planting legumes in winter and spring, to help put nitrogen back in the soil. The students are learning about composting food waste, to help build up nutrients to put back in the soil. They compost now regularly, without supervision.
They also learn the importance of planting flowers to attract pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. The kids know the pollinators help the whole garden grow better.
The curriculum is composed of several stations set up outside in the garden. At the science station, the students learn about seeds, flowers, and plant parts.
At the observation station, the kids get to look through microscopes at plants and seeds, and dissect seed pods, flowers, and plants.
At the journal stations, the kids write down their observations for that day while in the garden.
And at the garden station, the kids are planting seeds, plant starts, pulling weeds, watering, and tending to the whole garden.
Eating healthy and making healthy choices
The garden and its bounty create a visual model for what healthy food looks like. In other words, after the students grow leafy green lettuce in the garden, and tend to it, they recognize what good lettuce looks like. Literally, they want to eat it when it is served at the salad bar in the school cafeteria. It is their lettuce, after all. A product of their hard work. Research has shown that children who grow food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and continue to have healthy eating habits into adulthood.
The act of growing healthy food and producing it for oneself is a life-long benefit for these kids. The garden is engaging, makes them excited to learn, explore, and discover new things. These kids are learning important life skills that will be carried into adulthood.
The school Garden Project at Steele Lane Elementary School has been going strong for 25 years. It serves 450 students. As well as the hands-on garden program, there are enrichment programs, after school programs, and the Harvest of the Month program, to increase access to healthy food. The school relies on volunteers, grants, and donations to keep the program going. Slow Food Russian River is a proud sponsor.
Jo Ann Gleason lives in Santa Rosa, CA, and is a member of Slow Food Russian River.