youth engagement in the garden all summer

As many of my loyal blog readers will know, I spend half of each week with the Burlington School District as a Garden Education Coordinator. And oddly enough, when it comes to my work with the district, my busiest time of year is often the summer. This somewhat paradoxical reality got me thinking about all the ways I’ve connected with youth in the garden during the summer, something that I know many school programs struggle with. So I thought I’d compile a list of the strategies I’ve used, entities I’ve partnered with, and programs I’ve facilitated to keep youth engaged in the garden all summer long.

  1. Support Summer Schools and Summer Feeding Sites: Here in Burlington a handful of our schools stay active for at least part, if not most, of the summer. Whether they be students attending summer school or youth dropping by for the free meals offered by the Burlington School Food Project, there are a lot of kids passing through school even though it’s no longer the academic year. Many of the teachers I work with during the school year lead summer school classes and are occasionally looking for fun outdoor activities to do with their students. Teachers will sometimes ask for advice: What work would be most helpful for us to do this week? What’s ready to harvest that I could eat with my students? Others might request more hands on support: I saw you working in the garden yesterday, next time you’re here would you be willing to lead a short gardening activity with my class?
  2. Summer (Garden) Camps: I used to help run an afterschool program that morphed into a 5 day-a-week camp during the summer months. As someone who happened to be passionate about connecting kids to the garden, I spearheaded staff efforts to connect our campers to this largely volunteer-managed space. At the end of the school year, just as we began planning summer camp, I met with the individual who ran the garden to get the lay of the land and to learn how we could support and interact with the growing space over the summer. With her guidance we were able to create a plan that balanced student interest and access with the realities of summer garden maintenance. Some weeks counselors would facilitate daily structured garden-based activities (ex: paper pot making, seed starting, weeding parties etc.), other weeks we’d just take excited students to the garden during recess or free choice time to see if there was anything to harvest, water or weed.
  3. Community Center Connections: One of our middle school sites houses summer camp programming that is administered and facilitated by the community center next door. For the past three years I’ve partnered with the center’s cooking class to lead guest cooking activities and get students out into our large production garden. The relationship partly arose out of miscommunications; unbeknownst to us camp was facilitating garden specific programming in our space, with staff attempting to plant in beds we had future plans for and harvesting food intended for our Fork in the Road food truck. After a conversation with the camp director to set up respectful expectations around garden use, we set out on a new path of increased communication and collaboration. Ever since then, I’ve coordinated with the individual running the cooking class to work with their students once or twice a week while camp is in session, we’re able to tackle necessary garden projects that are simultaneously fun for campers.
  4. Paid Positions for Youth: Each summer Burlington School Food Project’s Fork in the Road food truck employs approximately eight Burlington High School Students for ten weeks. Students earn wages while prepping complex meals, working, vending, and catering events throughout our community, and participating in garden shifts. During these weekly garden shifts, students weed, water, plant, and harvest produce from our two large production gardens. For much of the summer they are the primary caretakers of the gardens, making their time spent in these spaces meaningful not just in a practical sense--each shift serves as a way to deepen their relationship with the food growing there as they nurture tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and more from seedlings to mature plants that they will then pick, prepare and then serve on the food truck. Our youth staff are paid through the food service department, which undeniably presents some challenges each year, but there are alternative ways to providing wages to youth participating in a work-and-learn program like ours; for a great example take a look at this old fundraising page for Medomak Valley High School’s Heirloom Seed Project Teen Agriculture Crew.

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