Learning From Growing: Gardening as medium for education

As globalization spreads, each generation experiences a weaker connection to food than the one before. What we eat defines us in infinite ways; it speaks of our culture, defines our identity, determines our health… Yet, our relationship with the land and the work that grows the things we eat has become one of detachment and foreignness. We have come to a crossroads in the development of food culture; a point where we must decide whether we will continue to encourage the industrialization of the food market, or instead cultivate a relationship with food involving personal connection. To do the latter, we must seek to increase the number of urban farms, prioritize the consumption of local produce, and reincorporate gardening and farming into the way we live our daily lives.

The answer to reshaping our food systems lies largely in the way we structure education. Education is at the root of how we interact with and relate to the world around from childhood onward. Schools and programs such as Camino de Paz, Food Corps, The Edible Schoolyard, Farm to Table, Farm to School, and The Farm-Based Education Network have constituted a growing movement of incorporating farming and gardening programs into education for youth. Through school gardens, kids get to have a hands-on experience growing food while developing a sense of understanding and connection to food systems. A space devoted to gardening can also function as an interactive lesson for other school subjects, and the products from the garden can go into school meals as a way to provide all students with a source of healthy, fresh food that they can feel personally connected to. I spoke with Kendal Chavez, a member of the Food Corps team in New Mexico, to learn more about how these programs work.

One of the most important points brought up in my conversation with Kendal was the importance of context. Starting a school garden can provide an outlet for children to take an active role in their education, but we must also consider in what ways a particular community will be engaged. What cultural issues are relevant and important? What language is accessible? What goals should be set? For instance, a school focused on bringing up students’ test scores may not feel they have as much to gain from starting a garden as one that is seeking to increase interactive methods of education. So, the first question we must ask is: how can we take a particular school’s goals and priorities and make them applicable to a school garden that will be meaningful and engaging for its students?

In an article by Harold Hungerford and Trudi Volk, published by the Southern Illinois University, data from various studies showed that our ability to get involved with environmental issues is shaped by education through three main variables that the authors summarize as “entry-level,” “ownership,” and “empowerment” variables. Entry-level variables are those dealing with basic knowledge of issues. Ownership variables begin to deal with a deeper awareness of how issues function, paired with a sense of connection to the environment and the knowledge that we have an impact. These two variables aren’t enough to inspire initiative without the third: empowerment. A person is empowered by their skills, their confidence, and their intention to take action.

Traditional education systems typically focus heavily on entry-level variables. School is densely packed with information and lacks room for freedom, creativity, and a sense of belonging. However, in order to develop ownership and empowerment, children must be encouraged to learn in an environment they can build a personal and emotional connection to, and they must gain experience holding responsibility and witnessing the rewards. Through school gardens, children are given opportunities to understand the environment in terms of food culture on a personal level, to hold responsibility, and to see, quite literally, the fruits of their labor.

Diagram by the writer on entry-level, ownership, and empowerment variables in education as described by Hungerford and Volk in their article Changing Learner Behavior Through Environmental Education, available here: http://www.elkhornsloughctp.org/uploads/files/1374624954Changing%20learner%20behavior%20-%20H%20and%20V.pdf

Diagram by the writer on entry-level, ownership, and empowerment variables in education as described by Hungerford and Volk in their article Changing Learner Behavior Through Environmental Education, available here: http://www.elkhornsloughctp.org/uploads/files/1374624954Changing%20learner%20behavior%20-%20H%20and%20V.pdf

Empowerment was an idea that also came up in my conversation with Kendal, and one that I believe lies at the very heart of food culture education. Food dictates the way we consume, the daily choices we make, our health, the well-being of our very planet, and much more about the way we interact with ourselves, others, and the planet. Gardening gives kids an array of ways to be active, involved, and to feel relevant to these issues, while breaking their alienation of food. Kendal described one of the main goals of her work as getting children to “connect the dots.” Through gardening and growing something they can see, touch, eat, and take home to their families, kids are given the opportunity to see how everything, from themselves, to their parents, to their communities, to their environment, and to their food, is interconnected.

-Posted by Keila

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One Response to Learning From Growing: Gardening as medium for education

  1. C.C. says:

    Excellent reporting to someone who has been an elementary educator and is now an informal environmental educator with a family garden program. I really appreciate all the research gathered here and will take time to fully digest this article. Well-done, Keila!

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