SWECC_GardenHe came to us with many seeds planted in his life.  The seed of violence from an abusive father.  The seed of anger from a defensive single mother.  The seed of poverty; he was one of eight children.  The seed of hunger–he needed a small snack upon entering school to make it to breakfast without defiant episodes.

Enter the school garden.  It was time to plant our fall beans.  His eyes began to sparkle as he helped prepare the warm dry soil, breaking up clods, removing obstacles, and smoothing the dirt with his hands.  Hope was planted in one small bean seed.  Motivation was nurtured by teachers who encouraged him, saying, “Let’s check to see how our beans are doing.”

The reason for hard work sprouted from the kindness of caring for the needs of baby plants.  Self discipline grew as he turned his thoughts to the garden, initiating visits to water, weed, and admire growth.  Just as the beans matured, so did his respect for himself and others.

He took joy in gathering the crop to share with his school community, knowing he had been responsible for the outcome.  He washed and stemmed the beans for cooking, being accountable for food safety.  He delighted in the fruits of his labor, smiling as he ate.  He saved one bean to take home, sharing the miracle of growth and transformation with his family.

The school garden, impacting the community one child at a time.

This excerpt, written by Brenda Proebsting, a teacher at 2015 National School of Character, Southwest Early Childhood Center, beautifully depicts the power of getting students out of the classroom and into school gardens.

In a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education EdCast, “Roots of the School Gardening Movement,” host Matt Weber interviewed Jane Hirschi, author of Ripe for Change: Garden-Based Learning in Schools. Jane shared, that while school gardens are not new and date back to John Dewey, our current school garden movement is “driven by an interest in food” and serves as a “link between kids knowing about foods and making healthy food choices.” It is especially important, as our students’ lives become more and more dictated by technology, that we continue to value time outdoors and cultivate their love of nature.

Fortunately, schools across the country, particularly Schools of Character, have recognized the multitude of ways the school and community gardens can promote positive youth development. When I reflect on the most innovative gardening projects that I’ve seen, community engagement is always at the forefront.

When 2015 National School of Character Theunis Dey started its garden, principle 5 (opportunities for moral action) & 9 (student leadership) were front and center. Two students at Theunis Dey approached the administration about beginning a school garden. They were concerned about families in their community that were going through a difficult time and thought that the produce from the garden might help to ease their burden. Despite a very low percentage of the school on free and reduced lunch (3%), these two students were sensitive to the needs of those around them and eager to help. Similarly, 2015 New Jersey School of Character, Upper Greenwood Lake Elementary, opens up its garden to those who need it, not only to those that attend their school, but to the larger community, as well.

Manervia Washington, a teacher tutor at Vaughn Road Elementary, a 2015 Promising Practices recipient, talks about how their school garden has enhanced learning and community relationships:

One of our most valued projects was the creation of a school garden. Students had a hands-on approach to learning about gardening, parts of the plant, building character, and teamwork. They exhibited the character traits of respect for the environment, cooperation, patience, school pride, and citizenship. Also, they learned to collaborate and determine outcomes. Most importantly, students learned the importance of community relations. They sought the help of our community leaders who gave generous donations and came out to assist in the garden.

These stories reveal that simply having a school garden is not enough, it’s what you do with that garden and what your students do in that garden that matters. If your school has a garden, how is it being utilized to advance students’ academic and character development? Share with us in the comments!