|Workshops encourage kids to harvest benefits in the garden|
Spring days often lead students to daydreams of escaping the classroom for fresh air and sunshine, but recent workshops are encouraging teachers and others who work with children to bridge the gap between the classroom and the great outdoors.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Alabama Wildlife Federation, Bonnie Plants and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources sponsor workshops on Developing Youth Gardening Programs. Conservation Education specialist Doyle Keasal, one presenter at a workshop held in Covington County, said children harvest tremendous benefits when they spend time gardening.
"Gardening at school leads to increased student confidence and self-esteem," said Keasal, adding the problem-solving opportunities provided by school gardens also help students develop patience and cooperation.
"And you can get kids to eat anything if they grow it. They may decide they don’t like it, but they will try new foods they’ve grown themselves," stated Keasal.
Junior Master Gardener Coordinator Luci Davis, another presenter, agreed with Keasal.
"Take radishes, for example, something you would never think of a child enjoying. But when they plant the seeds and anxiously wait for those radishes, kids will eat them like candy," said Davis.
Teacher Cynthia Tucker, who attended the workshop and is planning to start an outdoor classroom at Straughn Middle School as she did at a previous school, said she had seen children willing to eat new foods as well.
"I actually had parents tell me their children would never have eaten like that at home," she said, illustrating the excitement her students had shown about eating soup made from the vegetables they had grown in their outdoor classroom.
With presenters and those in attendance sharing personal anecdotes from previous experiences, presenters also answered specific questions about gardening in general, providing sound information on everything from preparing a new garden bed to drawing soil samples and ideas for theme gardens.
"Regardless of what type of garden an outdoor classroom features, keeping the project manageable and accessible is key," said Keasal.
"You can’t garden without touching and being active. Weeds won’t die by just looking at them, so the garden needs to be one students can handle, with some guidance from a teacher or volunteer," remarked Keasal, adding gardening can be an excellent springboard to other curricular areas.
"How many times do students ask why they’ll ever need to know a certain concept or set of skills? When young people garden, suddenly science, math, writing, and health and nutrition all take on practical applications," Keasal explained.
And in addition to the teachers and Cooperative Extension Coordinators, Dee Bennett of Pike Liberal Arts School in Troy also brought three high school students who are working with their school’s garden.
"We were able to build the garden with grant funds from Steps to a Healthier Alabama, and they harvested cabbages, brussel sprouts, lettuce and other crops in the fall. We’re planning now for our spring garden, looking for produce they can harvest before school gets out for summer," said Bennet, a point Keasal said is important to consider.
"No one wants a garden on campus that becomes an eyesore, so thinking about who will care for a garden during the summer months or other breaks in the school calendar is key," said Keasal.
In addition to the wealth of gardening information, the workshop also featured activities and lessons for the classroom relating to gardening, a concept Luci Davis said is central to the Junior Master Gardener Program.
"It’s not all dirt work by any means," explained Davis during her first activity of the workshop in which she demonstrated how to make a sombrero from newspaper.
"Activities like this prepare students for work in the garden while allowing them to be artistic and creative. It also gives teachers an opportunity to talk about recycling or sun exposure," continued Davis, illustrating the ways the Junior Master Gardener Program can help teachers in the classroom as well.
And Keasal said the other lessons young people take away from a school garden are more important than the veggies or flowers themselves.
"Students can learn more about environmental stewardship and the impact people can have on the world around them. Gardening is also an opportunity to help children understand where their food and fiber really comes from, and donating food they grow to local food banks or soup kitchens is a great way for young people to learn about compassion and community service," Keasal said.
For more information on the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Outdoor Classroom Program, visit http://www.alabamawildlife.org/conservation_education/classrooms.asp. Or to learn more about the Junior Master Gardener Program in Alabama visit www.aces.edu/jmg or
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.