Nearly 2,000 students at five schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District engaged in school-wide design exercises, “garden nights,” garden-based class projects, and all-out garden build days.
“Kids learn best when they fully use their senses,” says Jen Greenwald, who teaches second grade at Muir Elementary on Madison’s west side. “When they are in the garden, they ask boundless questions about what they see, feel, taste and hear. They eat food they never would otherwise try because they grew it themselves. When we ask them to go back to the indoor classroom, they protest. They don’t want to leave this wonder-filled place they have created.”
Students and teachers participated in multiple ways. Lincoln Elementary School Kindergarteners whooped it up at a salad party. Sixth graders at Toki Middle School designed and presented to their parents and teachers full-scale blueprints for a new garden at the corner of Whitney Way and Russet Road in Madison’s Meadowview Neighborhood. They identified their favorite design elements and built their garden.
“The energy at Toki’s Earth Day Every Day festival was unbelievable,” says Shelly Strom, Garden Specialist with the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin. “The sixth graders produced thoughtful, detailed plans of how they would design the space. They were completely engaged from the beginning through the build.” Strom, a landscape architect by training, led design sessions at the GROW Pilot schools using a model outlined in Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation.
“What we see is a critical need for youth to connect the dots,” says Mary Michaud, Director of Community health for Public Health Madison & Dane County, and co-founder of the GROW Coalition. “Research tells us that kids who grow their own food are more likely to ask for fresh vegetables and fruits at home. In gardens, youth feel the power of place-making and that the community values them. Outdoor classrooms and nature-based play spaces are some of the most visible, tangible ways we can say, ‘We care about our kids.'”
Teachers, principals and parents from each of the schools formed teams to guide the process of integrating garden-based learning into school curricula and culture. School communities embraced the possibilities. Teachers attended workshops as part of a Professional Learning Community. Topics included engaging children in garden-based learning; how to engage members of the community in garden design, construction and maintenance; design strategies to enhance outdoor learning; and strategies to work with students in hands-on settings.
On Madison’s north side, teacher Susie Hobart organized volunteers from many walks to build a grand new pavilion adjacent to Lakeview Elementary’s new raised bed gardens. At Muir Elementary, intense winter and spring planning events were followed by an energetic day of garden building, where more than 400 K-5 students rotated through to install 16 beds and a wooded path, guided by a talented group of GROW program staff and aided by a volunteers corps from CUNA Mutual.
Tom Linfield, Vice President of Grantmaking at Madison Community Foundation helped out during the build. “It was tremendous to see K-5 kids working alongside the CUNA Mutual volunteers, moving dirt, planting vegetables, filling wheelbarrows full of mulch, planting trees. This kinds of school/community collaboration is precisely what we’d hoped for and stands as a model for what the project will achieve over the coming years.”
The collaboration extends to teachers, too. Because of bonds that formed through the professional learning communities, teachers from Spring Harbor Middle School (an environmental education magnet school) visited teachers at Lincoln Elementary, sharing tips and ideas to engage kids and families in outdoor learning.
Effective collaboration is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile cornerstone of an effective effort to address sticky social challenges. GROW Pilot staff and members of the GROW Coalition Steering Committee are reviewing applications for a new group of five Year 2 GROW schools from across Dane County. If year two produces anything like the energy and action of year one, we may just have a movement on our hands.