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School Gardens Grow a Lifetime's Worth of Skills

To launch our newest project, Design a School Garden with LAUSD (and We'll Build It!)—deadline is June 20!—we're publishing a series of pieces from stakeholders who have benefited from outdoor classrooms. Today, the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper.

“There is another way to live and think: it’s called agrarianism. It is not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty and a passion—all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbors and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.” --Wendell Berry

One of the most important tools we have to help change children’s relationship with food is hands-on experiential learning is cooking and gardening classes. If we want children to broaden their palettes, eat the rainbow and make positive life-long wellness choices, then we have to teach them where their food really comes from, what it really tastes like and how to cook it.

Gardening, whether at home or in school is one of the most important educational experiences we can share with our children. We believe that at different ages, children explore and interact with gardens differently. For instance, preschoolers may want to plant seeds, dig for worms, and even pluck strawberries or cherry tomatoes, but don’t expect that they will make a strong connection between gardening and preparing food. Offer them the whole experience of food, flowers, and even some outdoor farm animals, like rabbits and turtles. It’s important that they feel comfortable on a farm or in a garden because it will set a tone for how they view gardening in the future, but all they need is permission to explore the environment. What they learn about food in that setting will grow naturally out of their experience there.

As children get a bit older, say five or six years old, they may be able to use the garden as part of their “play.” From storytelling to drawing to games like hide and seek, the garden can become a place of fantasy that unbridles the imagination. To allow this age group the most rewarding experiences, remember that food is grown in dirt and “dirty” is truly beautiful in this setting.

Even eating some organic dirt on occasion is okay.

Many of the elementary schools in Berkeley have school gardens, through grants from the California Nutrition Network and it’s in these gardens where children really begin to be able plant and grow food. Garden lessons at this age can be about reading, writing, drawing, math and science, as well as food of course. Allow elementary school children to help pick out seeds to grow, help in the planting and have watering and weeding be part of their “chores.” Careful on the weeding, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between the baby plant and the baby “weed.”


Martin Luther King Middle School is home to the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. The grade levels at King are six, seven and eight—their abilities differ exponentially in the garden. Sixth graders are just beginning to be able to accomplish tasks in the garden with a modicum of supervision. They can use tools, plant, harvest and help to build structures in the garden—at Edible they can even harvest the freshly laid eggs. By the time students are at the end of middle school, they interact with the garden in a multi-disciplinary fashion, from math to science to the business of selling the garden’s harvest, they are at the age when they can be fully engaged in all aspects of gardening.

By high school, students can actively pursue all gardening and even many farming disciplines on their own. These young adults may be working in urban gardens growing food for themselves and their community, planning CSAs or experimenting with hybrid or open-pollinated varieties of vegetables and fruits. One of the organizations that has become a model for gardening and farming with older children is the Food Project based in Massachusetts. Begun in 1991, the Food Project has built a national reputation for engaging young people from diverse backgrounds in building a sustainable food system. Each year they work with over a hundred teens and thousands of volunteers in growing over 250,000 pounds of food without chemical pesticides. This food is then distributed to local shelters, a CSA, farmer’s markets, harvest bags, their own value added products and even catering. Seek out groups like this in your own area to help your children find their place with gardening and growing.

Not all children will have the opportunity to participate in school or community gardens, but there are other creative ways to introduce kids to growing food—one of these is container gardening. The containers can be anything from window boxes to large metal or ceramic “barrels,” or even just plain plastic buckets. It doesn’t matter which container you choose; the important thing is that you creatively engage children with growing food in non-traditional ways. You might have room on a windowsill or perhaps you have a hallway with floor to ceiling south facing windows. Your kitchen may have some light and space or an entry way might turn out to be the perfect place. City dwellers may have room on a fire escape or space in a room to add a grow light. Community and rooftop gardens are wonderful alternatives for urban children.

The important thing to remember is that no matter where you are, you and your child can share the experience of growing food. Children can enjoy growing herbs and plants in almost any environment and as long as there is enough light and warmth anything is possible.

Check out our project: Design a School Garden with LAUSD (and We'll Build It!)

Chef Ann Cooper is the Renegade Lunch Lady

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