Core Principles Series: Build Self-Efficacy

In 2012, I read The Pull of the Earth, a participatory ethnography in a school garden, written by Laurie Thorp. I was two years into graduate school and looking for my own “story within the story” (Thorp, p. 23). In a way, I chose to research cooking and gardening in schools to build my own self-efficacy, the belief that ‘I can do this.’ For me, the ‘this’ was pursue doctoral-level scholarship. To keep myself grounded, I sought a research context and topic that would satisfy more than my intellectual curiosity. I needed to feel connected in a way that would provide a “venue for healing, learning, and love” (p. 9).

School gardens provide this same sense of connection and self-efficacy for children. When a newly planted seed germinates or a freshly harvested radish is eaten, kids wear their success in their smiles. In Teaching in Nature’s Classroom (2015), Nathan Larson reminds us to Build Self Efficacy as a core principle of garden-based education. He describes the “truly victorious” moments when children triumphantly share “the fruits of their labors” (p. 18).

Setting kids up for success and scaffolding their engagement in a school garden will produce “confident and capable” planters (Larson, p. 19).

Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education

Nurturing students’ relationships to success is not a new idea in education, but its use is a recently growing trend. Related to the formal classroom practices involving ‘learning progressions’ and ‘formative assessment,’ Using Success Criteria, is usually coupled with motivation and achievement to clarify curricular standards and goals. In contrast to these narrow applications of self-efficacy, garden-based outcomes are inherently more open ended and difficult to control, in part, because they rely on nature. As Thorp astutely observed in her study, “[n]ature [drives] the process, not the curriculum guide” (p. 28). Nonetheless, we can set kids up for gardening wins when we include the I can language used to craft ‘success criteria.’

Building self-efficacy applies equally to kids as to adults. Just before the school year ended in June, I got a message from a teacher telling me, “My garden is ready for you to see.” I’m ready to see any garden at any time, so I when I arrived, I asked what made her ready to share it now. Her response? “It’s finally in a place I want it.” She and her students had been working all year to reclaim the space they lost access to in 2020. As an observer, her invitation to share the space with me felt like an expression of her own self-efficacy.

As we walked around the garden, she pointed out all the new and improved areas: a recently constructed raised bed, a relocated strawberry patch, a weeded habitat area, pruned fruit trees–just to name a few. Impressed by the extensive mulch coverage, I inquired about her wood chip supplier (wood chips being a high-demand product in our drought-afflicted region). She confidently responded, “I know how to get what we need.” I could hear the success in her voice. She told me how being back in the garden with students was a huge win after “being locked out a lot” during the pandemic. It was a win for me to be invited to tour the space (which even has a solar charging station–she does teach high school, after all!).

In a chapter entitled, “The Grace of a Garden,” Thorp writes about a children’s book that tells a story of “teamwork, cooperation, and communal nourishment” (p. 23) at the heart of building self-efficacy. The moral of the story reinforces the idea of success as producing a desired result. I certainly felt that way after completing my dissertation. My hope is that every child has a chance to feel it when they tug a carrot out of the ground or pick a fruit at peak ripeness.

A decade after reading The Pull of the Earth, and two years after pandemic restrictions were first imposed (The Ambiguous Loss of Outdoor Education), I am happy to find stories of self-efficacy emerging at every turn. I wish you many successes in the garden this July!

Posts that Highlight Core Principles of Garden-Based Education

More Posts About Self Efficacy

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