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Q&A with Jane Hirschi

We had a chance to chat with Jane Hirschi, the author of Ripe for Change: Garden-based learning in schools and the founding director of CitySprouts, a school garden program that has partnered with 20 urban public schools in Cambridge in Boston since 2001.

CitySprouts is a program that teaches kids about where fruits and vegetables really come from, and about the value of fresh, healthy food. Jane shares with Project Bread her take on the importance of garden-based learning with children and some tips for how to get a school garden program up and running.

Q: The practice of garden-based learning with children has been around for more than 100 years. What do you think is behind the recent renewal of interest in kids and gardening?

A: I think there are three really distinct concerns feeding our interest in school gardens.

The first is food, essentially: both an interest, and an excitement in the return we’re seeing to more local food options. There is also a real concern about food security, and providing access to healthy food for every neighborhood. School gardens are a very visible source of local produce, but they also offer an opportunity for children and families to learn about vegetables and fruits growing right in their own neighborhood. That’s pretty local!

Concern about children’s academic education is a second factor. As our country’s public school demographic increasingly includes more ESL students, and as evidence about how children learn accumulates, teachers and parents are realizing just how much garden education can contribute to a deeper understanding of science, writing, and other subjects.

Lastly, our rapidly shrinking natural resources—not to mention climate change—are waking folks up to the importance of environmental education for everyone. The school garden is a perfect intersection of all three of these concerns.

Q: What impact can experienced based learning have on a child "beyond the garden"?

A: A very big impact, indeed! An increasing amount of research on how children learn points to experiential learning as an effective means to engage students, and build critical skills and knowledge. The schoolyard garden gives teachers a wonderfully accessible resource to create learning experiences. What’s more, many children (and adults) find the garden to be a calming environment. It’s funny how gardens can be so highly sensory, and yet also “ground” our emotions (pun fully intended!)

Children need the time and space to be curious. We need to provide them with interesting areas to explore—and the opportunity to return frequently enough to really get to know those exploratory spaces.

Q: How does garden-based learning in schools influence children to develop healthy eating habits?

A: When teaching takes place in an edible learning garden, children absorb knowledge about food, the skills to grow it for themselves, and a greater familiarity with environmental systems like the
water cycle and the carbon cycle. They also end up tasting new flavors, and even discovering they like vegetables! Children generally eat what they know, and the garden expands what they know.

Q: What advice would you give a teacher who wants to start a school garden?

A: DO IT! Every school needs and deserves a learning garden. You can find plenty of resources to help you make it happen: how to design a space that works for teachers as well as students, how to care for your garden, and where to find a community of others engaged in this amazing work to support you (and answer questions!)

My book, “Ripe for Change,” is a good place to get a sense of how teachers are using gardens, and even embracing possibilities on a district-wide scale. Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle’s book, “How to Start a School Garden,” is also a great resource for planning and getting started. Finally, Life Lab is an invaluable online resource for materials.

Filed under: Spotlights, Children and Schools, Community Solutions