Core Principles Series: Let the Kids Be the Gardeners

Contributed by Minna Nummelin, Second Grade Teacher at Napa Valley Language Academy

Last year, our school garden needed a lot of work. I began using 2-3 of the twenty 20-foot garden beds each year, but most of the remaining beds needed soil replacement or amendment. Parent volunteers helped with the digging and arranged for compost to be delivered from the local waste management facility. But how was that HUGE pile of soil going to make it into the garden beds? I watched in amazement as my second graders, with a small trowel in hand, carried bucket after bucket of soil to the beds.

Kids will figure out how to get a job done, even if it’s moving a mountain of soil one half gallon at a time.

Kids are creative problem solvers. They’ll figure out how to get a job done, even if it’s bucket-by-bucket. This is exactly what Nathan Larson means when he suggests letting kids be the gardeners. He points out, “The idea of letting kids be the gardeners in their school or community youth garden may seem obvious to a seasoned garden educator,” while a horticulturalist may be more focused on efficiency or style. My students saw the soil mountain as their project to tackle and put all their 7- and 8-year old energy into moving it. And move it they did!

It would have been much easier to get a few parent volunteers to shovel it into wheelbarrow loads. But now, students knew that they were the ones who created these beds and the success of whatever grew there would be partly due to their hard work. This sense of ownership instills agency in children and solidifies the connection they have to the garden.

“By providing children with the space to experiment, make mistakes, and learn from their experiences, we help them to deeply feel that the garden is their own. This is precisely how we cultivate an enduring connection between children and the food that sustains them.”

Nathan Larson, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom

While one dedicated group hauled soil, the lead garden teacher let the remaining students choose between several other tasks that needed to be done. It’s helpful to give kids some direction, but they need opportunities to try things out and make mistakes. There is no level of enthusiasm that beats the enjoyment of planting seeds and starts or harvesting produce from a garden they helped cultivate. All hands go up and they look at me with ever-so-hopeful eyes when it’s time to pass out the seedlings or seeds to be dropped into the ground. My students love math, but this is not the same look I get when I am passing out a new math assignment. Yes, sometimes the seedling stems break or seeds fall between their fingers long before they ever drop what’s left into the ground. But they are beaming, excited, and fully invested into this project. 

Every day, all day, kids in classrooms are put into the role of consumers of knowledge. What parts of the day, which tasks, which exercises do students really get to own as an experimental time to run their own learning? I remember my education professors asking in the credential program, how many of us were perfectionists and how many liked school as kids. Most of us raised our hands for both questions. Fast forward several years and these perfectionistic, school loving students are now the teachers of their own groups of students. Give us a garden plot and what do you think we’ll do? We want it to look beautiful. We want it to produce successfully. I can say these things because I am this teacher.

But the garden is a learning experience, not a standard to mark as “not met,” “approaching,” “met,” or “exceeded.” If the garden is to be a learning experience, it really doesn’t matter if the cauliflower didn’t grow or the peas dried up. What matters is that students felt ownership of the garden and learned potential reasons for why the cauliflower didn’t grow and the peas dried up. This is what happens when you teach in nature’s classroom.

A giant head of cabbage, riddled with pockmarks is perfect to the child who harvested it.

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