Learning to Love the Earth

love nature

Kids who spend more time near green space during childhood have more white and gray matter in parts of their brain, leading to higher scores on cognitive tests. These are the findings from a new study out of the University of California – Los Angeles that confirms what we at KidsGardening have known for years: the earlier and more often children are exposed to nature, the happier, healthier, and brighter they become. They also have a closer connection to and more respect for the environment.

I recently read David Sobel’s book, Beyond Ecophobia, Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, and it got me thinking a lot about the experiences I had in nature as a child and how they influenced the adult I’ve become. Sobel makes the case that children must develop a bond with the natural world through empathy and exploration before they are taught abstract - and often devastating - environmental concepts.

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” –David Sobel

Growing up on a five acre horse farm in rural New Hampshire, I was outside nearly every day exploring, learning to care for animals, and connecting with nature on a level I would not comprehend or value until much later in life.

Many of my fondest memories took place in this small wooded area across the street from my childhood home. I know now that my time spent playing here and on that horse farm as a kid cultivated a connection to the natural world that laid the foundation for environmental activism. When I watched An Inconvenient Truth at age sixteen and learned about climate change, my mind, body, and spirit were primed to fight for the earth I had grown to love. I doubt my reaction to that documentary – which set the stage for my college education, career, and the rest of my life – would have been as strong had I not spent my childhood developing a bond with the natural world.

I am fortunate to have grown up with nature right outside my back door, but many children simply don’t have access to a farm or forest behind their house, nor to any green space at all.

That’s where gardens come in!

School and youth gardens can take many forms and are not just accessible to rural communities. In fact, eighty-one percent of children served through KidsGardening’s programs are in urban or suburban areas. Youth gardens can take the form of raised beds on top of pavement, gardens on the roof of a school, a living wall in a schoolyard, or plants under a grow light inside the classroom. They are an incredibly effective tool to connect all children, regardless of setting, socioeconomic status, physical ability, or learning differences to the natural world – laying the foundation for the environmental stewards on which the future of our planet depends.

Budding Botanist Grantee Visits

budding botanist

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two of our Budding Botanist grantees. Sponsored by the Klorane Botanical Foundation, Budding Botanist grants will help our youngest citizens learn about plants, explore their world and inspire them to take care of the life they discover in their local ecosystems.

My first stop was Rosemead High School in Los Angeles, CA. (Student gardeners, faculty advisors, and FoodCorps educator are pictured above.) With the Budding Botanist grant, they plan to improve their existing “Best of Thymes” garden and experiment with a “Wisdom of Weeds” garden. If you haven’t seen teacher Joseph Vasquez’ speak about the transformational power of weeds, watch it now! Senior Kaitlyn Ly gave us a tour of the garden, from the marquis garden filled with native plants, the citrus trees throughout campus, and the corn growing in planters in the culinary garden. The school has done a remarkable job of incorporating edible and educational plants throughout the campus, and they even have plans for a monarch corridor!

Next, I visited Garfield Elementary School in Oakland, CA. Teacher Abdul-Haqq Khalifah works with a core group of mainly African-American boys to maintain the garden space. With the Budding Botanist grant, he hopes to invest in improvements that will make the program sustainable for years to come, and continue to provide green space access to the students of Garfield Elementary, and educate them about healthy food and nutrition choices.

The KidsGardening staff and representatives from the Klorane Botanical Foundation are visiting all of the Budding Botanist awardees, so stay tuned on social media for lots more photos and videos!

Why Every School Should Plant a Pollinator Garden

We have had another exciting spring garden season at the Glen Loch Elementary Teaching Gardens in The Woodlands, Texas. First let me share a few before and after pictures with you. The first ones were taken about a week after planting day and the second ones were taken this week.

First, our Third Grade Tomato Recipe Gardens:

pollinator garden

The kids grew the tomatoes from seed starting them under grow lights at the end of January. We decided to plant all cherry tomatoes this year because last year the larger tomatoes did not ripen in time. Alas, we had a bit colder spring than normal (eye rolling from my colleagues in Vermont; it was cool for our standards), so we just had our first harvest on Tuesday of this week, but the plants are loaded down with lots of green fruit that I hope will turn by the last day of school. As you can see from the picture, they started out pretty spindly looking and we over planted because I was not sure if they would all make it through the transplanting process. Joke is on me though because those hardy things stuck it out  and took over all of the other plants. We now have a tomato jungle.

Next up, here are our Fourth Grade Salad Gardens:

pollinator gardenThis year we planted lettuce, radishes, basil, cilantro, beans and our experimental plant for the season was strawberries. You may recall from my last blog that we tried growing strawberries from seed and although they germinated fine, they will probably be large enough to plant outdoors by the fall maybe (slow growers), so we ended up buying small plants which was a bit pricey, but the kids were so excited it seemed like a solid investment. That being said, we quickly learned how many feathered friends live on our school grounds.  Though on the bright side, I do think the birds helped us fight back the worms that were destroying our lettuce plants. In mid-April, I finally broke down and purchased bird netting and we finally started getting some strawberries to harvest. Another challenge though is that the berries ripen just a few at a time and when they are ripe they are ripe, so it makes it a little harder to plan for classroom harvest sessions. We will definitely try them again – but may need to assign them to their own bed so that we do not have to put netting over everything.

So you may be thinking to yourself, I thought this blog post was going to be on pollinator gardens? I love our edible gardens. I love the fact that the kids get to see the cycle from seed to table. I love that they get to taste the difference between tomatoes straight off the vine and those they get in the grocery store. I love that they learn how much work goes into growing food and that they need to appreciate our farmers and be willing to pay premium prices for locally grown produce. But….

Seven. That is the number of times it has rained at our school garden since we planted it in March which means we have spent a lot of time watering.

Fifteen. That is the number of volunteers we needed to make sure our planting day was successful.

Four hundred. We spent about four hundred dollars on all the seeds, plants, soil, and fertilizer needed for our 23 vegetable and herb beds.

pollinator gardenAnd then here is our pollinator garden bed. This January we spent about five minutes cutting back all of the dead plant growth. We then sprinkled just a little bit of organic fertilizer on top and sat back and watched it grow. All of the plants you see in the picture either came back from seed or from the roots. So we spent about 5 minutes and maybe a dollar on organic fertilizer. It requires much less water and I know that even if we miss a day of watering, it can bounce back.

And this is why I think every school should have a pollinator garden. They require much less maintenance and once installed, usually require less annually funding while still offering you the perfect outdoor classroom teaching tool. Would I like to see a vegetable garden in every school too? Absolutely – but only if you have the resources (both financial and human) to make sure it is a positive experience. Limited on time and money? Jump into your garden adventures with a pollinator garden and then add on as your support grows.

North Elementary School Garden Build

garden build

For the fourth year in a row, KidsGardening partnered with PT Holdings, a company based in Addison, IL, to build a school garden in the suburbs of Chicago as part of their Giving Back Initiative. This past Saturday, three members of the KidsGardening team headed out to North Elementary School in Villa Park, IL, to work with over 150 volunteers on a series of exciting projects.

Over the course of a morning, PT Holdings staff and members of the North Elementary School community built eight raised beds, twelve benches, a 7’x7’ storage shed, and a weather station. Volunteers also transplanted over 100 plants, and moved 9.5 yards of mulch, 8 yards of soil, 1 yard of gravel and ½ a yard of compost. Whew! It takes a lot of volunteer-power to make a school garden happen so quickly.

Check out some pictures of this fantastic event...

garden build
Welcome to North Elementary
garden build
Here come the plants!
garden build
Check out that cool weather station! So many possible curriculum integrations.
garden build
It takes helpers big and small to get the job done.
garden build
Beautiful new garden beds. Amazing work, everyone!

Three Simple Ideas for Practicing Mindfulness in the Garden with Kids


It’s Screen-Free Week. And KidsGardening is participating in this annual, international celebration when families, schools, and communities swap digital entertainment for the joys of life beyond the screen.

First, a question: Do you ever feel stressed out by your fast-paced life? If so, the kids in your life might too! Sadly, children these days report more anxiety, stress, and depression than in years past.

Now I am NOT trying to give you one more thing to worry about. That’s the last thing I want to do. Instead, I hope I can share a couple of super simple ways you and your kids—whether they are your own children or your students—can unwind together.

We all need opportunities to decompress from the pressures of our day. And many people turn to screens because they’re so readily available. We plop down on the couch and scroll through social media feeds or play video games. But an increasing amount of research is finding that television, video games, and advertising contribute to anxiety in children.

As a mom, I juggle a lot of responsibilities. And I have long known that as few as 15 minutes puttering around my garden will magically (although it’s not really magic, it’s science) wash away the day’s stress. I am now finding that my two-year-old son is benefitting emotionally from time in the garden each day. It’s become a fun way for us to spend some time together after work: learning, exploring, de-stressing, and all while growing food and flowers for our family.

Just being in the garden will have a number of mental health benefits. However, if you want to deepen the impact of this time spent in the garden, you can try the mindfulness activities offered below.

Mindfulness in the Garden

Mindfulness is a buzz word in the education world right now, as more and more teachers and parents understand it’s role in promoting social and emotional resilience in kids.

Writing for Greater Good Magazine, Linda Lantieri and Vicki Zakrzewski explain that mindfulness practices help, “students become aware of and then embody the connection between their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” They are then, “better able to regulate their emotions, which then impacts things such as their behavior, stress levels, relationships, and ability to focus.”

Here are a few activities you and your children / students can do to reap even more benefits from your time in the garden. These have been adapted from a blog post by Jessica Knopke on SimpleFamilies.com.

Mindfulness Activities for the Garden:
  1. Blowing on leaves 
    Blow leaves off the palm of your hand. Does an maple leaf need a different breath than a locust leaf? This will help children to experiment with different intensities of breath.
  2. Anchoring to sounds 
    Listen for the subtle sounds of nature. It might be wind in the trees or the chirping of a bird–we can pause our brains and tune into the sounds that are present right now. How do these make you feel?
  3. Mindful eating
    Snack on something from the garden. How does it look? How does it smell? Is there a sound it makes while you chew? If you are picking it up with your hands, what does it feel like? Before you take that first bite, who can you thank for that food? The worms that nourished the soil, the sun for helping it grow, the rain for watering it, the gardener who tended it... Then chew that first bite really slowly.