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Urban School Gardens: A Nature Niche

by Jessie Rack

The world’s intrinsic beauty and complexity is a never-ending source of inspiration for educators. And we’ve all seen the results of being outside on our students, no matter what age — immersion in nature invites focus, observation, and simple noticing. Students with behavior or attention issues are sometimes stabilized in an outdoor environment. The smallest insect or rock becomes a fascination, and questions bloom without effort. 

As environmental educators, we don’t need to be told about the benefits of taking our students outside. In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of studies on outdoor education, with authors citing results like better grades, higher test scores, and improvements in focusing attention and regulating behavior. But for those of us who, like more than 80% of the US population live in urban areas, helping our students reap the benefits of the outdoors is sometimes more complicated than simply taking them outside of the school. So how do we give urban children the experience and benefits of playing and learning outside? One way to do it is through school gardens. 

This approach works because school gardens occupy something of an in-between space: they are not quite the structured, rule-bound, indoor world of the classroom, and yet also not the unstructured freedom of the open desert, or the forest, or even the playground. And yet they encompass aspects of all of those spaces. Gardens are a place in which collaboration and communication happen naturally, in which rules are still followed, but in which students can learn from experience and from others, and can literally get their hands dirty, while their teachers can still achieve their curricular objectives and meet state and national standards.

There has also been a lot of research about the benefits of school gardens specifically – it’s been something of a hot topic for the past couple of decades. Research is ongoing, but it seems that school gardens can affect students in a variety of ways. These range from the most obvious areas of healthy eating, nutrition, and science to more subtle impacts such as positive social and emotional skills, group collaboration, and even increased environmental stewardship. 

With all of this in mind, stay tuned for a series of AAEE newsletter articles about school gardens. In future editions, I will be sharing some tips for starting and maintaining school gardens, and for using these gardens to fill the nature niche that many urban schools lack. My position, with the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program, is unique; I run the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities Program, in which I work directly with students at Title I schools, providing weekly environmental education lessons to students at these low-resource urban schools in Tucson. I also work with my colleagues to install school gardens at schools around Tucson and to help train teachers to take care of the gardens and to use gardens in their curricula, using the gardens and outdoor spaces at the schools as living laboratories to get students outside and immersed in nature. No matter the age group or ability level, school gardens are an effective tool for engaging students, for improving focus and achievement, and for getting kids excited about their environment. And, of course, for getting a little dirty.

 

Jessie is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

I’m an Early Childhood Educator — Is EE for me?

ALL DAY Saturday is for YOU!

 As early childhood educators know, the experiences in the early years continue to shape a person’s identity, ability, and attitudes throughout the rest of their lifetime. According to First Things First, 90% of a child’s brain develops by age 5, and researchers have learned that the human brain develops the vast majority of its neurons, and is most receptive to learning, between birth and three years of age.

As environmental educators–it is imperative we serve the ECE community! Yet, many traditional EE models are simply not developmentally appropriate for young children. Things like discussing deforestation ethics, studying animal population models, or doing invasive species removal are often just too advanced or can trigger feelings of fear and disempowerment in young children. That’s why we wanted to turn our focus towards what the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) deems one of the best methods for teaching & learning in early childhood: PLAY! Recently, NAEYC has turned their attention specifically to nature play. Responding to the national trends, we want to offer you the low-down on the details & best practices for nature play, how to play in Arizona’s unique environment, and how to manage risks and hazards when taking young children outdoors.

We start the day off with Cheryl McCaw, preschool teacher and adjunct faculty at both the Arizona State University and Prescott College. Cheryl will be giving and introduction to nature play–what is it? Why is it important? Along with taking children outside, Cheryl will be talking about how you can bring nature play into your classroom. And, for those of us just starting, with small budgets, limiting locations, or just not enough time, Cheryl has some great tips on how you can take what you’re already doing in your classroom and easily “tweak it” to fit the nature play approach. 

Then we’ll be learning with Melissa Mundt, owner of Garden PlaySpace, certified Permaculture designer, and active gardener from Tucson. As many of us are coming from desert or high desert areas, the endless stories of “forest kindergartens” where kids play in the shade under towering trees and with gushing streams just isn’t cutting it for us. However, Melissa is here to talk about how nature play is alive and well in the desert. She’ll discuss ways young learners can safely explore our arid lands without the fear of spines, stings, scorpions, and snakes and share some really unique models from Tucson. Come explore designs and activities that celebrate our natural desert environment and make nature play possible no matter where you are!

After that we’ll be putting our plans into action with Sarah Foglesong, coordinator of the Early Childhood & Early Childhood Special Education Program at Prescott College and director of the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education. As anyone working with children knows, we spend much of our time somewhere between the “Oh no! You’re gonna get hurt!” and the “Oh wait, you’re fine” moments. Sarah will be sharing tips and concrete tools you can take home for doing risk assessment and hazard management in nature-based settings so you can take your young learners outdoors without all those ups and downs. Sarah defines the difference between a risk and a hazard and discussing how you can allow your students to have healthy perceived risks while still easily preventing real injuries. In her presentation, you will learn how to perform an outdoor risk assessment, manage for hazards, and advocate to your education team about why it’s important to give children the benefits of healthy risky experiences and not just eliminate these from your nature-based or outdoor program.

We wrap up the day with two ECE-focused options for field trips. However, you’re welcome to go on any of the field trips that spark your interest!

The first one is with Nikki Julien, member of AAEE’s Board of Directors and owner of Nature Play Learning

She’ll be taking folks on a tour of the Highlands Center for Natural History and sharing her expertise in both interpretive naturalism (how to use the current landscape to foster learning & connection) as well as nature playscape design. Nikki is a certified playworker, playground inspector, desert landscaper and more! Her unique perspectives and breadth of experience will help you learn how to critically examine an area and envision & actualize projects, dreams, learning, and play anywhere. Nikki believes nature play will save the world, and we agree with her!

The other ECE-focused option is to explore the ways in which various educators have leveraged the power of learning gardens. Thanks to local cooperation between a variety of schools, non-profits, extension offices, and dedicated community members, Prescott is a vibrant hub for learning gardens of all shapes and sizes. Travel around Prescott with NPECE Center director, Sarah Foglesong and see a spectrum of initiatives and learn how gardens & green space can be used as outdoor classrooms that can support developmentally appropriate learning for all the domains! Contemplate the potential for your program’s own spaces and get inspired to get your hands dirty!

See you there!

For more information about ECE at the statewide EE conference contact npece@prescott.edu

To see the conference schedule or to register visit: https://www.arizonaee.org/event/2019-aaee-conference/

School Gardens? AAEE Digs Deeper

“Join the United States School Garden Army; Enlist Now!”  reads the World War I poster of a young girl pushing a plow and looking determined in her red, white, and blue attire. Although the school garden army didn’t last, the battle to get a garden in every school continues. Posters like this were spread across the nation in 1918 by our Bureau of Education during our nation’s first federal initiative to get schools gardening. At the time, the nation responded in full force.

Many believed school gardens were both a solution to the labor & food supply issues in the agriculture industry during the war and a way to teach the basic concepts of democracy and civic duty. Fannie Griscoms Parsons, a school garden advocate of the early 20th century, is quoted in a Smithsonian article as describing school gardens not, “simply to grow a few vegetables and flowers,”  but, “to teach [students] in their work some necessary civic virtues; private care of public property, economy, honesty, application concentration, self-government, civic pride, justice, the dignity of labor, and the love of nature.”

Although remarks like Fannie’s were revolutionary at the time, emerging school garden research from the past two decades indicates Fannie was just discovering the top of the carrot; there were a lot more applications and benfits to be dug up! As we now know, school gardens are not just for vegetables and flowers nor just for imparting civic virtues—school gardens can teach almost any subject, and perhaps, teach it more effectively than Fannie or United States Bureau of Education could’ve ever imagined. Here’s some statistics that rocked our world: In a recent interview between NPR and REAL School Gardens, an organization that not only helps schools get gardens going but trains teachers on using them, REAL School Gardens reported their partner schools see a, “12 to 15 percent increase in the number of students passing standardized tests,” and that’s not just students in the garden program–that’s school-wide! Even in an independent study of these schools, they found that “94 percent of teachers in the REAL School Garden programs reported seeing increased engagement from their students”.

Wow! Those statistics are hard to ignore. But what if you aren’t working with a professional development & training program–will your garden be as effective? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” And, there’s no need to pour through every article; the University of Georgia did an analysis of all the research connecting school gardens and academic performance between 1990 and 2010 and discovered, “overwhelmingly that garden-based learning had a positive impact on students’ grades, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior”.

Like the university’s analysis discovered, the benefits of gardens go far beyond improving grades. As parents, educators, administrators, or anyone who works with children, we know our students academic performance is a small indication of their overall well-being. A student’s physical and emotional development is deeply tied to their success both in school and throughout the rest of their lives.  Across the nation, children and adolescents are experiencing physical and mental health issues at all time highs. Here’s a few sobering statistics shared by the the Collective School Garden Network (CSGN): They found research that our children are the “first generation of Americans at risk of having a lower life expectancy than their parents,” closely tied to the fact that “less than 2% of US children eat the recommended 2.5 cups of vegetables each day.”

Fortunately, the CSGN and many others have found and proven a simple antidote: school gardens! Not only do children experience academic improvement when engaged in a school garden, their health and commitment to making healthy choices receives a boost as well. In a 2007 summary of a school garden study they that, “students involved in a garden-based nutrition education program increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by 2.5 servings per day, more than doubling their overall fruit and vegetable consumption”! These statistics and effective solutions are hard to ignore.

Digging deeper, we consistently found across all ages and abilities, and the spectrum of personal and cultural identities, school gardens help teachers teach, children learn, and communities thrive. Since the numerous approaches and benefits to green schoolyards and school gardens goes on, we’ve decided to share the latest and greatest in green school action and research with you throughout the rest of this year. Stay tuned for more on: School Gardening in Arizona (our climate brings unique challenges and opportunities!), The Dirt on Green Schoolyards (a growing national movement & why!), Planting Standards (state standards, NGSS, and the EE Guidelines are easy in the garden!) and more.

To really get your seeds started, check out our Environmental Education Certification Program, where you can start today, working online on your own time towards a nationally-recognized, career-building certification. In our certification program, you can integrate your interests in garden-based learning and other environmental education approaches so that your certification portfolio builds resources that best serve you, your students, and your community. Break the soil, check it out today!

…and happy gardening from all of us here at AAEE!

*photos from https://communityofgardens.si.edu, www.kidsgardening.org, and www.childrenandnature.org