Curiosity, Compassion and A Love for Nature
Whether it’s digging in the soil to plant fruits and vegetables or journaling about the changes they see in the garden, students throughout Sacramento are busy experiencing science firsthand, while at the same time growing in ways a classroom activity or textbook may not accomplish alone.
School gardens are naturally a place where students can experience the outdoors while being taught a wide array of academic disciplines, including science, math and nutrition. And teachers are discovering that the garden is often an ideal platform for social emotional learning (SEL), which focuses on strengthening students’ abilities to understand, manage and express the social and emotional aspects of their lives.
In turn, teachers in the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) and in the San Juan Unified School District (SJUSD) are finding that the results of the garden programs are countless.
Learning for Life
For the past decade, Shannon Hardwicke, a garden educator, has been working at six schools in SCUSD to bring the garden programs to life. She has been an employee of Soil Born Farms for the past five years and her role includes developing a garden curriculum plan and fundraising methods, and training teachers, administration and volunteers.
While every campus has its own culture and every garden operates a little differently, she has seen common results when it comes to the skills the children are gaining, and explains that the garden allows for “curiosity, compassion, choice, teamwork, endurance, handwork, patience, leadership and gratitude” — all key SEL terms.
“I find that it is a palate that can be used for almost any focus and the kids are so engaged when they are in the garden that it brings that learning to life,” Hardwicke adds.
One of the most significant skills that she has seen emerging from the garden curriculum is the skill of observation. Students are encouraged to sit in the garden for a few minutes, noticing colors, smells, insects, sounds, feelings and shapes. These observations lead to poetry, diagrams, art and detailed responses in the students’ journals.
Hardwicke has found that everything about caring for a garden is mindful, a keyword in regards to SEL. Being conscious — or aware of something — comes into play when students pay attention to the health and success of their gardens. They are amazed to see the new birds, butterflies and bees that are also present in the garden. The students are mindful of the ecosystem they helped create, and in turn, this leads to being mindful of their specific jobs in the garden.
“Everyone realizes they actually have a role and responsibility, and they can contribute in some way,” says Hardwicke. “When they start to realize that and sense that, it’s really empowering.”
A Natural Outlet
Brian Crawford, a preparation teacher working at O.W. Erlewine Elementary School in the same district, views the garden program as a natural outlet to let kids be kids and sees the same SEL skills being strengthened among the students.
He has worked in the school garden for the past seven years. Situated very close to the American River, the students at this school have access to an extensive half-acre, 50-year-old nature area next to the campus’ 4,000-square-foot garden. Normal circle time for these kids means sitting on huge stumps under an umbrella of beautiful trees.
Crawford believes that “we are somewhat programmed to have a relationship with soil, dirt and nature” and he teaches the students that life just wants to be, hoping that they will file away a respect for nature.
He sees the excitement in his students when they taste the edible cherries on the Prunus ilicifolia bush, an evergreen shrub along the nature trail, or eat two or three pea pods from the garden at once. They are eager to get their hands in the dirt and discover insects, and thrilled at the chance to use gardening tools. Teamwork and endurance were the driving force behind a major project that Crawford completed with the kids — spreading 17 yards of decomposed granite in the nature area.
“Every kid wants to be useful,” says Crawford. “I look at this as if they are apprenticing and at the same time, they are building relationships with me and they are building relationships with their teachers.”
Not too far down the road, the science teacher at Pasadena Avenue Elementary School (in SJUSD), Julie Harr, is engineering hand pollinators with her second and third graders. A former biology teacher, Harr has found that the pollinator project gives the kids a chance to collaborate and continually test materials and improve what they engineer. The students work in groups to pollinate poppies, bucket orchids, Jack-in-the-pulpit flowers and Dutchman’s pipe flowers.
When Harr’s students visit the garden (often with magnifying glasses), they talk about having compassion for all life forms and learning to use a gentle finger. Each grade level has its own planter box, giving the students a sense of ownership, and everyone helps to make sure the garden’s needs are met. Harr has found that many instances that occur in the garden create opportunities for conversations, and if a student discovers a caterpillar, everyone has to go visit the caterpillar because like in Crawford’s class, insects are the hot topic.
“I think there is a deeper understanding that goes beyond just what you tell them,” says Harr, who encourages students to try the green onions and has to keep a close eye on the popular mint plant. “It’s something that can’t be replaced with a lecture and activity.”
While students are busy developing educational, emotional and physical skills in the garden, they are innately seeing, hearing and experiencing the natural wonders of the environment. They are gaining a sense of how important it is to take care of the earth, both on their campus and beyond.