Growing Sustainably: A Way to Raise Healthy, Educated Children

Growing Sustainably: A Way to Raise Healthy, Educated Children

Author: Aly Thompson, RD

My favorite part of the day is when I pick up my garden education students from recess at McKinley Elementary. I see their faces light up. Then, in many waves of anticipation, I hear students excitedly chant, “Yay, garden class!” Often, a student will turn to me to ask what we are learning this week. I haven’t given any hint about our activities prior to the lesson, but my students are already engaged and excited to learn. They are itching to get their hands dirty. They are excited to grow and taste new foods. Most of all, they are ready and willing to learn.

San José is struggling to raise healthy, educated children. Childhood obesity rates are disproportionally high in Santa Clara County (32.9 percent in 2010), and our public schools struggle to perform well on state and national exams. San José needs a new way to get our students engaged in learning science and math, while also teaching students how to live healthy and why it’s important.

Photo Credit: Jackie Ryken
Photo Credit: Jackie Ryken

School gardens enable youth to engage in a hands-on manner in a number of subjects such as science, math, and nutrition in ways that aren’t possible inside the classroom. According to “Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning,” education in an outdoor setting encourages better performance on standardized tests for reading, writing, math, science and social studies. In addition, outdoor learning has been shown to reduce discipline and classroom management issues and increase student engagement and enthusiasm for learning. And lastly, as students engage in activities outside of the classroom, such as growing their own food, it helps instill in participants a sense of pride and ownership of their accomplishments.

CommUniverCity recognizes the powerful impact of garden education. Through our Growing Sustainably project, we are building healthier communities by leading garden education programs in the Franklin McKinley and San Jose Unified School Districts.  All students from 3rd to 6th grades have the opportunity to learn about nutrition and growing fruits and vegetables during classroom hours and after school. This affords hundreds of students the opportunity to learn science, math, and nutrition in new hands-on setting.

Growing Sustainably has results we can truly see. Students are taking the knowledge they learn in the classroom and even teaching it to their parents and family. For example, I witnessed one student in the after school garden club bring a handful of lettuce she had picked during class to her father and exclaim: “I’m going to go home and make a salad!” Along with cracking a big grin on our faces, these moments are testament to the fact that garden education at school can influence healthy living at home.

Garden classes help reinforce concepts learned in the classroom. After discovering the difference between gymnosperms and angiosperms in the classroom, for example, my students wanted to identify these different types of plants within the school garden. Garden classes also give students the ability to try things they would not normally have the opportunity to experience. None of my students had ever seen or tasted a spaghetti squash before. After tasting it during a lesson, many students wanted seconds and said they would ask their parents to buy and make some at home.

We want to expand garden education to reach as many children as possible, but many schools have trouble maintaining gardens once they are started. CommUniverCity has created an internship program in partnership with Garden to Table and Veggielution to work to alleviate this challenge and enable schools to establish supported long-term gardens while also providing a high quality after school enrichment program for students. The purpose of the newly established internship program is to train local college and university students in garden and nutrition education, then place them in local schools where they will lead students, parents, and teachers in maintaining and utilizing the garden as an outdoor living classroom. This allows teachers to focus on teaching in a thriving garden that engages all the students’ senses, while also training college students interested in education about how to engage youth in an outdoor classroom setting.

While CommUniverCity’s Growing Sustainably is designed to be a sustainable model for the future, we need to the continued support of teachers, principals, school district officials, community members, and University faculty to ensure the success of this program for years to come. Programs are only as good as the people who support them, so we need everyone engaged in raising healthy, educated children.

For more information on our Growing Sustainably internship program or on how to get involved with Growing Sustainably, contact Aly Thompson at aly@cucsj.org.

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