As the children happily dig in the earth, she provides a running commentary -– and lots of good-natured bantering -– on everything from the advantages of planting rotating crops to the nutritional benefits of Dinosaur kale and how it came by its name (“It grows big and bumpy and green like a dinosaur”).
Using school gardens as a teaching tool is part of a growing trend in Canada and worldwide to green schoolyards by converting asphalt and concrete into vegetated areas. “Bringing nature and natural processes to the schoolyard gives students an opportunity to touch and see, which is a much richer experience than sitting inside listening as we show pictures,” says Elaine Alexander, the principal at Withrow. The school's 600 junior kindergarten to Grade 6 students have been learning valuable lessons about nature and environmental stewardship in their outdoor classroom since the garden officially opened in June 2006.
The idea for Withrow's Spider Web Garden was first conceived two years ago by the school's greening committee and Wanda Georgis, coordinator of the committee. “I'm not much of a gardener,” she says, laughing, “but I thought the kids needed to be more connected to the earth, and the best way to do that is through hands-on activities. Kids value the work they do with their hands.”
How a school garden grows
Her first step was to approach Evergreen (a nonprofit environmental organization that provides help to schools across the country undertaking greening projects) for a design consultation. Jane Hayes, Evergreen's food garden associate, suggested the school move away from standard garden rows, which don't hold children's attention, to radiating beds with a teaching semicircle. A parent volunteer who is a landscape architect worked with the greening committee and the students to come up with a unique spiderweb design -– hence, the garden's name. “Part of the attraction for the kids is the nature-based design,” says Georgis. “Kids love a theme they can identify with.”
Evergreen held two teaching workshops at the school to get the project up and running. The Growing a School Food Garden session taught participants how to double dig the garden (the top is dug with a spade and the bottom with a fork to incorporate organic matter) to prevent weeds from settling in. A second workshop focused on laying out the spiderweb design. Students worked alongside their teachers and parents, plotting, digging, planting and fertilizing. “The students play a big part in what goes into the garden,” says Hayes. “This is a fairly diverse community, and we try to reflect that in what we plant, whether it's okra, African callaloo, yams or tatsoi.” Many of the approximately 20 varieties of vegetables planted were grown from seed in the students' classrooms the previous winter. “Most of our kids have lived in the city all their lives,” says Alexander. “They don't know where a tomato comes from. It's one thing to see it in a book or in the grocery store and another to actually watch it grow from seed.”
Funding for the garden came from a Toyota Evergreen grant for $1,200 and a gift certificate from Home Depot for about $1,000. Withrow's Home and School Association contributed an additional $1,000 to provide an honorarium for a gardening coordinator. The five seating stones in the garden were donated, and the colourful murals and artwork on the garden fence were compliments of the school gardening club and an enthusiastic Grade 3 class. “It's a lovely setup,” enthuses Kirsten Johnston, the Grade 4 French immersion teacher. “The kids can sit on the stones, look out over the garden and talk about what they're about to do there.”
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Johnston is one of several teacher reps who helps find meaningful ways to link what's taught in the garden to the school curriculum. A large green bulletin board in the school's main corridor colourfully depicts everything that's been happening in and around the garden and attests to the group's success. Grade 2 students, for example, have studied sunflowers and how to harvest their seeds and even observed a squirrel in action as it made off with a number of seeds for a tasty snack. Grade 6 students learned about local First Nations traditions by planting a Three Sisters Garden (corn, beans and squash). And two Grade 4 classes read the tale Stone Soup, which explores the themes of community and sharing, then harvested what was left of the vegetables in their fall garden to make their own tasty stone soup creation. “If I had made vegetable soup at home, my son Zak would never have eaten it,” says Georgis, whose three children attend Withrow. “But he brought home extra from the soup he made at school."
While a school garden clearly provides endless opportunities for students to learn and connect with nature, only 0.5 per cent of Canada's 16,000 schools have one, compared with five to 10 per cent in the United Kingdom and 30 per cent in California. That's partly because school gardens have just started to take off in Canada over the past couple of years, says Hayes. “There's a lack of structured provincial and national support.” In School Ground Greening: A Policy and Planning Guidebook, Evergreen notes that the growing interest in these projects has presented significant challenges for school districts not yet equipped with supportive policy, design frameworks, maintenance strategies or even funding. Climate is also a factor, especially in regions where the growing season is short. But there are lots of ways to work around that, says Hayes. “In Calgary, for example, there's a program called Little Green Thumbs, where the kids are growing things indoors all winter long and
Create green goals
Withrow's next greening goal is to build new bins to house its compost. Teens from a local community centre will help make the composters as part of a youth employment program. Future schoolyard greening plans also include recruiting new members to the greening committee to “spread the vision,” says Georgis. Withrow recently applied to officially become a green school through a program offered by the Seeds Foundation. It's all part of their plan to make greening a lasting part of the school's culture. “We hope that when our students leave, they'll take a sense of environmental stewardship and commitment with them,” says Alexander.
Ultimately, a school garden -â€“ like any garden â€“- requires commitment and passion to ensure it thrives over the long term, says Georgis. A core group of teachers, parents and students to spearhead the project is essential, as well as a principal who encourages staff to incorporate the garden into the day-to-day curriculum. There also has to be enough support to maintain the garden during vacation periods when enthusiasm tends to wane. Withrow is fortunate to have an on-site day-care centre that tends to its garden during the summer months, with help from a caretaker and a group of parents who volunteer to water and weed. The Spider Web Garden also benefits from community involvement, including a neighbour from the nearby Bain Co-op, which was one of Ontario's first co-ops in 1977. “One of our neighbours works for Foodshare, and the compost he makes for us is beautiful,” says Georgis. “He's our compost guru.”
How a school garden grows
Evergreen food garden associate Jane Hayes has the following advice to help you get growing at your children's school.
•Â Form a garden committee: At the least, you need one really enthusiastic teacher, a strong parent volunteer and a principal or administrator who's committed to the project.
•Â Start small and do it well: “A huge plot could end up sapping all your time and energy,” says Hayes. “You can get tons of benefits from a smaller space.”
•Â Identify financial and community resources: While this is the biggest challenge for many schools, you can have a successful garden with limited funds and some creative scrounging, including donations such as seeds, compost and tools from local businesses and parents.
Tip: Organizations such as Evergreen provide financial support and expert assistance to publicly funded Canadian day cares and schools from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 who want to undertake greening projects ($500 to $2,000 per school on a first-come, first-served basis).
For more information on how to get started and what other schools have done, check out Evergreen's Learning Grounds site at www.evergreen.ca/en/lg/lg.html. It has a wealth of resources, including planning, design and curriculum guides that you can download. Evergreen also provides hands-on help in planning, design, plant selection and fund-raising in a number of cities across the country, including Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Becoming a green school
The Seeds Foundation has a national green schools program that also recognizes environmental action. Students are encouraged to get involved in projects such as schoolyard plantings and litter pickup, recycling, hallway nature displays and sharing songs on the environment. Schools gradually work toward completing 100 projects to become recognized as an environmental Green School. Some schools go on to achieve Jade status (250 projects), Emerald status (500 projects) and Earth School status (1,000 projects). There are currently 5,500 schools involved in the Seeds green school program across Canada, and approximately 248 schools are Earth Schools. A school in Chase, B.C., recently became the first school to achieve Earth 3 status (3,000 completed projects). “These programs have a tremendously positive influence on the school culture,” says Margo Helper, national executive director of Seeds. “They also give children a sense that they can make a difference â€“- that the decisions they make and the actions they take will add up and make their world a better place.”
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