“Garden-based learning” cultivates new ways to make education come alive

Photo Courtesy of CitySprouts

It’s 9:30 on a Wednesday morning in Miss Tassinari’s third grade classroom, and Leilani Mroczkowski, Education Coordinator of Green City Growers, is pretending to be a radish. She’s squatting on the ground, holding her knees, her long black dreads stretching down towards her dirt-caked work boots. Behind her, Hadas Yanay is standing on her tip toes, arms stretched toward the ceiling.

“So if I’m a radish down here, and Hadas is a kale, which way is North?” Leilani asks the class. The kids point towards the front of the room.

That’s the lesson of the day: where to plant vegetables of varying height in your garden. The record breaking winter snowfall in Beverly, Massachusetts, landed this late March lesson indoors, to which the students responded with a disappointed whimper vibrating around the colorful classroom.

Tassinari is sitting in the back, grading handouts with a big pink marker. “They love getting outside, working in the garden, seeing the bugs and insects,” she said. “There is excitement all around; they all want to participate, even the quieter ones.”

Mroczkowki started the lesson by passing out a compass to each group of four desks. When they find North, they are to stand up and point towards it.

“So, in our garden, where should we plant the tallest veggies?” Mroczkowski asks the kids. Most of them stood excitedly and pointed North.

“That’s right! That way, the tall kale won’t block the short carrots and radishes from the sun!”

“Green City Growers has been incredible,” Tassinari said later. “A lot of kids don’t have outside experience with gardening and being outside in nature. It’s all video games.” She explained that watching the kids develop throughout the year, from first not even being able to identify vegetables to the end of the year, where they know how to garden. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

“I grew up in Indiana, with a sizable vegetable garden. Nature has always been a part of my life,” Mroczkowski said.

But when Mroczkowski moved to Boston five years ago, she had a hard time getting used to the small and congested atmosphere, with limited green space. “It really made growing things a challenge,” she said.

Leilani working with children (courtesy of Green City Growers)

That’s when she got involved with Green City Growers, an organization that builds and maintains gardens for private homes, schools, eldercare facilities and corporate offices. Mroczkowski works as the Director of Education. She was drawn to their mission of bringing knowledge of how to grow food to inner cities, explaining that the current system often forces people to buy unhealthy and prepackaged food.

“It’s damaging to their health and not beneficial for their community,” she said, explaining that most prepackaged food is not from a local source. “Green City Growers equips people with the skills to grow their own food.”

There is no typical day for Mroczkowski, but in warmer months she can be found in a garden on the property of an elementary school giving lessons alongside teachers on anything between math, history, art and language.

Green City Growers is not the only organization with roots in Boston area public schools. Working in all Cambridge public elementary schools and four Boston public schools, City Sprouts is a school garden program that, according to Director of Operations Kimberly Goldstein, aims to engage teachers to teach lessons in the garden rather than in the classroom.

On April 17, it was the first warm outdoor lesson of the year at Baldwin Elementary School in Cambridge. Michele Kaufman, Garden Coordinator of City Sprouts, prepared one of the four raised garden beds on Baldwin’s playground.

Photo Courtesy of CitySprouts

“We keep one bed for herbs and one with native wild flowers,” she said as she dug a trench in the dirt. “The other two are for whatever. The lessons depend on the year.” Today, the first-graders will be planting peas.

“They’re going to use them as a math lesson,” Kaufman said. The kids will measure the growth of the peas as they climb up the string fence on the long side of the bed.

The first graders come out in groups of six. For five minutes, three of them plant peas while the other three mix the compost. Then they switch. The first three huddled around Kaufman as she gave them pea planting directions.

“We’ll be planting the peas in this line I made in the dirt. Put down one pea, then put down two fingers next to it. Plant the next pea on the other side of your fingers,” she told them. “I promise you won’t touch any bugs,” she added, looking at one girl with a terrified look on her face.

Across the playground, there are screams from the compost bin. Apparently there is a worm squirming around in the compost. One girl assures the other two that the worm is okay, the compost needs him to breathe.

After the first grade lesson, kindergarteners are coming out to plant carrots. “They just read a book called The Carrot Seed, Kaufman said.

Kaufman sees a need to give students time outside. “Especially in the poorer areas, it gets parents interested with vegetables and healthy food. It really opens up their world. The kids can inspire the parents.” She believes it’s important to give exposure to kids on where food comes from, regardless of the age.

Both Goldstein and Mroczkowski work alongside teachers to develop curriculum for public schools.

“Most of my time goes into looking at Massachusetts state standards and finding ways to connect gardens to what teachers have to teach,” Mroczkowski said, explaining that she tries to use the garden as a tool. “Everything is about passing tests, running standards and getting scores. We try to find a way to do all of that with the garden.”

Goldstein said, “We work with teachers that have very little time. Public school teachers are under a lot of pressure to perform well on tests. They don’t have extra time to figure out garden lessons, they have a lot of stress and pressure.”

“I was very excited to work with them because with all of the standards in math and reading, it’s really hard to get science and social studies in,” Tassinari said.

“Kids today need to be exposed to nature, but a lot of time schools aren’t doing that as much as I think they should. So I think by us trying to tie curriculum into gardening, we’re showing you can learn from being outside. It’s a really beneficial tool to be using,” Mroczkowski said.

Goldstein referred to this teaching style as “garden based learning”.

City Sprouts exists for three reasons: first, for academic support and garden based learning; second, to teach kids about ecology and give students a sense of nature in the city; and third, to teach kids about healthy food choice. Kaufman explained that each year, City Sprouts sits down with teachers to create a garden curriculum that caters to the individual needs of the students and teachers. “We work with the teacher to plan something that’s meaningful and beneficial,” she said.

A typical lesson is learning about living things, a unit in 2nd grade science, where kids can use the garden to identify living things and how they differ from nonliving objects.

“Science is easiest,” Kaufman said. “With math, a lot of the time they are studying the area and perimeter of the beds.”

“[Garden education] gives direct, hands on lessons, rather than conceptualizing. It puts everything they’re learning in the classroom into context,” Kaufman said. “There’s a big difference between measuring a two inch line on a piece of paper to measuring a two inch height of a plant in the garden. They learn something that is applicable to the world.”

Goldstein said there are also lessons in social studies. “Teachers can use the garden to show what gardens looked like in colonial America”, or when studying Africa, students can plant sweet potatoes and cotton, to mimic an African garden.

In addition to science and social studies, Goldstein said gardens are used for math, poetry and narrative writing. “Whatever you can think of, you can extrapolate and turn into a garden lesson,” she said.

Kaufman has helped teachers work with a variety of lessons. “Fourth graders will come and have quiet time in the garden, and then write a poem about what they were seeing and feeling.” Another lesson was to pick a section of the garden, and sketch it once a week to see the changes.

“Kids need to learn by doing,” Goldstein said. Goldstein strongly believes in experiential learning, where rather than kids sitting in classrooms and being talked to, they are actually practicing what they’re learning, getting their hands dirty, touching and tasting what’s around them. Garden-based learning makes this possible and is a way for kids in the city to have an opportunity to be connected to the natural world. “Instead of being scared of bugs, they can understand bugs and why they’re important,” Goldstein said.

Mroczkowski said that she has seen students excel in the garden that often have trouble sitting and listening in the classroom. “It’s not that they’re bad students, but the environment that they’re learning in is not conducive to their type of learning. So when you get them outside and have them experience hands-on learning, that’s when they zone in and focus.”

Tassinari has also seen this first-hand in her classroom. “There was a boy in my class last year who had a really hard time in the regular science program. He wouldn’t sit still, was impulsive, had shout outs. He didn’t seem to be that into the subject.” But when they went outside he absolutely loved it. He became focused and tuned in, even to help other students with the subject. The young man discovered that gardening is “his thing”.