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5 ways edible gardens make kids smarter and healthier

1 Feb

I just created a presentation about the evolution of our school garden at George Watts Montessori. (I can’t wait to tell you why I was doing that, but that will have to wait for another post.)

To show what we’ve accomplished, I delved into the 5 biggest ways the garden has contributed to the students’ health and academics:

1. Kids are tasting more vegetables and fruits — and learning how to cook them. Tasting what’s growing in the garden is so essential, but it’s also a challenge to incorporate into the school day.

At schools like Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., they have kitchen and garden staff who work together in figuring out what’s ready to harvest and cook with children — and then do it during set-aside blocks of time. If you’re not lucky enough to have that arrangement, you have to fit in tastings somehow.

At our school, the tastings have happened as a school-wide “celebration” — like Harvest Feast or Green Smoothie Day — and also as an individual classroom activity. This year, for example, classrooms gathered lettuce to make salads for a mid-afternoon snack and harvested broccoli for a recipe a teacher brought in. Other classrooms nibble from the plants as they pass through the garden on their way to recess.

What can you make with spinach and strawberries (both grown in our garden)? Green smoothies!

This spring, we’ll be trying something new. More about that in a future post…

2. Kids move more. Outside in the garden, kids can stretch, soak up some sunshine vitamins, and have a sensorial experience, thanks to all the smells and textures in the garden.

But the biggest boon to students’ health? The .25-mile walking path that we installed as part of the garden expansion.

Many classes run the track before starting recess. It’s one way for teachers — and not just the P.E. coach — to help kids reach the daily recommended levels of physical activity, 60 minutes. A growing body of research shows the connection between physical activity and academic performance (not to mention the health benefits of exercise).

So anytime a teacher encourages a run around the track, she’s helping kids get smarter.

A class does a lap before recess begins.

3. It’s a learning lab. I’ve told you before about the garden-based curriculum we’re using at George Watts Montessori. But teachers don’t always need customized lessons to encourage learning outside. Journaling, measuring, making real-world observations, conducting experiments, gathering specimens — it’s all possible in a garden.

Students can witness what happens when they don’t water young seeds enough, or how slowly their compost heap decomposes. It’s like this Chinese proverb puts it: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

4. It brings food equity to our community. We have enough space in our garden now that we produce more than students can taste during the school day. So we’ve been able to think about how to share food.

Some weeks (with the help of the school’s counselor) we send home fresh vegetables to school families in need. Over the summer, everything we harvested was given away to families at a weekly Garden Giveaway Day at the school. At last spring’s Great Tomato Giveaway, every family who wanted one got a free potted tomato plant, along with a list of ways to cook and eat a tomato.

And recently, over winter break, 20 or so students and their families came to the garden to harvest spinach and carrots. We took loads of it to our downtown soup kitchen, Urban Ministries, so the chef could turn it into a meal.

5. It builds community. This means a lot of different things to me. It can mean a small group of parents coming together to work on the garden beds, or the entire school community coming together to celebrate Rootfest. Or it can point to the many connections our school has made via the garden.

So far, we’ve forged partnerships with urban gardening groups like Bountiful Backyards and SEEDS. We’ve worked closely with the nutritionists from DINE for LIFE who serve public schools. We’ve helped and been helped by Duke students who want to make a difference in Durham. We’ve collaborated with other teachers and parents throughout the public school system. We’ve received grants and in-kind donations from organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, NC Beautiful, Whole Foods, Burt’s Bees, Cabot Farms and our own school alumni group Friends of Watts. (And our PTA continues to provide the critical financial and volunteer support that sustains this program.)

With all those people and organizations helping to lift up our students and lift up our school, we’ve accomplished a bazillion times more than we would have alone.


My, how you’ve grown

1 Oct

Fourth and fifth grade students are introduced to the edible garden with a lesson called “Garden Changes Over Time.”

It goes something like this: Measure the length and width of the garden. Use the measurements to create a grid over the garden map that divides the entire space into one-meter squares. (And voila — math.) Assign each student a square. Tell students that, throughout the year, they’ll observe changes in their small plots. They should draw and write about those changes in their journals.

Simple, right? Here’s what it looks like in action:


When I saw these students the other day, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos. You can’t believe how peaceful the scene was. No one was talking or peeking at someone else’s work or seeming distracted by the gorgeous weather. Everyone was peering down at their own plants and at their journals, trying to faithfully capture their plots in watercolor, while soaking up a little morning sun.

Besides a shovel, the most useful tool for a school garden

13 Sep

This is a gift. I’m writing this post for any teacher or parent in Durham or North Carolina who’s worked hard to establish an edible school garden. It’s tough work, so HOORAY for getting this far. Awesome job, you!

But if you’re anything like me, you may be realizing that the harder work has just begun. Because now you have to figure out how to get a bunch of already-overworked teachers, who may not know or care the least little bit about gardening, interested in taking classrooms outside to do … what exactly?

Our garden's first muscadine grapes

So here’s what I want to give you: a sequenced set of fall/winter 1st-5th grade lessons to use in a school garden, all of which correlate with North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Very easy, very relevant.

15 Lessons for 1, 2 and 3 graders (LCnG_Lower_EL)

15 Lessons for 4 and 5 graders (LCnG_Upper_EL)

I say “easy” because Durham teachers wrote these lessons with other non-gardening teachers in mind.

But I want to put the emphasis on “relevant.” You might believe that it’s important for kids to spend time outdoors and that it’s unquestionably worthy to provide fresh, garden-grown vegetables to children. And I would agree with you. But some might argue that there are more pressing, academic-type things to accomplish during the school day, and to those people I would say, “OK then, here! These lessons just might be the perfect tool for you!”

At our school, we installed an educational, edible garden. But teachers didn’t see how it related to curriculum. To some, it seemed like just one more thing they had to do. A few of them told me that, quite honestly, it simply “wasn’t their thing.”

Result: The garden was sort of a fun “extra” that didn’t connect with classroom curriculum. That’s why I asked four teachers from our school to write the lessons. So now, classroom teachers have a set of structured lessons, and each class has a scheduled weekly garden/science time slot during which they can use these lessons if they wish.

Our school was lucky enough to win a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation for this lesson-writing project. And we want to share the series with anyone who’s walking down this road with us, trying to develop a school-wide gardening program.

The lessons are brand new, so if you notice anything that needs fixing, I hope you’ll tell me. I also hope you’ll tell me if you decide to use the lessons. It helps us make the case for more funding of these sorts of projects. We’re working on 30 more lessons now, for spring semester.

Every few pages, you’ll see a recipe for something healthful that classrooms can make using what’s ripe in the garden — or a fabulous dip they can make for fresh veggies, since so much of our garden’s bounty can be eaten raw.

Mostly, though, you’ll see lessons that accomplish two things:

First, these lessons connect students with the land and the seasons, and help them discover where food really comes from. (Answer: Not, in fact, Costco.)

Second, they allow teachers to teach a lot of the things they have to teach anyway — decomposition, plant life cycles, insects, weather, erosion, etc. Only this way, they get to do it outside in a hands-on, experiential way.

New garden beds and walking path on the playground

Teachers at George Watts Montessori have just begun to roll out the lessons, with each classroom doing one lesson per week, more or less in sequence.

Tip: If you want to try the lessons out, here’s what to get in the ground now: herbs, radishes, carrots, lettuce, spinach broccoli, onions and wheat (for 4th and 5th grades, and it doesn’t need to be planted quite yet). Why? Because these are the plants that students will grow, harvest, cook with, and use in the lessons. If you plant those things, students will have what they need to delve into some cool science and literacy lessons.

What do you think? Is this something your school and teachers could use?