THE GARDEN AS TEACHER
Pat Neyman, February 1998
The process of nurturing plants teaches important Life lessons very directly. They reach the participant on a level not accessible through lecturing or other verbal presentation. And in addition we get to enjoy the flowers or fruit that the plants produce for us while teaching us!
I wrote this to help people interested in gardening with kids to convince others of the great benefits for kids of gardening. Some administrators might tend to dismiss it as too frivolous, but it is much more than that. Here are some things I have learned through gardening, or that people have told me they or the young people they worked with have learned.
Gardening is involvement in a process. You get to see the value of waiting for things to unfold, of an effort made today in order to see a result tomorrow. You learn that not all good things happen instantly, that there is a time for everything. And you learn that things don't always come out the way you expect - and that it's OK - you can try again.
2) Self esteem
This much-talked-about lack in our youth is not something that can be taught or purposely transmitted. It has to be felt. A garden provides a perfect environment for experiencing success -- and this, after all, is the basis of self-esteem. In gardening, failure is possible but the risk is low and the penalty relatively minor. Some youths who present intractable behavior problems in other situations are so affected by their garden experience that it literally changes their lives.
Gardening almost presupposes some kind of vision of the results you're trying to achieve. For young people it is a rare chance to practice this skill.
When you put a plant in the ground with the intention that it eventually produce flowers, vegetables, or fruit - or any of the other benefits we derive from plants - you have committed yourself to caring for that plant. This commitment requires putting the needs of the plant before your own whims and desires of the moment. So it is a chance to realize in practice what a commitment means, and to get rewarded for carrying through.
5) Gratitude for food
Once you grow your own food, you really appreciate on a new level what all those beautifully lined-up vegetables, boxes, and cans on the supermarket shelves represent. To realize that each mouthful of food we put in our mouths depends on the earth, the sun, and water, and on someone to plant the seed, care for the plant, harvest it, and get it to us, is no small realization.
6) The value of work
This is a rare chance for young people to produce something of value from their own efforts.
7) The usefulness of what we study in school
Math and biology skills are needed all the time in the garden. How many seeds will we need? How much lumber and soil for each raised bed? How much will we need to raise to buy them? What can we do to raise money? Could we produce some income ourselves by selling our flowers? How and where will we sell them? How shall we schedule ourselves to accomplish this?
Standard curriculum objectives can be met through garden-related activities. It takes some planning, but an internet search of the topic school gardens, or butterfly gardens will yield many ready-made lessons or ideas for activities.
8) Social skills and responsibility
Since gardens usually represent a group effort, an array of social skills can be practiced, such as organizing, respect for others in a group discussion, deciding who does what, providing time for cleanup. A revolving monitor system can enable every participant to practice leadership, for example in being sure all the tools get checked in that were taken out, being sure they're returned clean, keeping track of the time, etc. Again, the penalties for failure are minimal and the lessons to be learned very important to success in the "real" world.
9) Skills essential to success in work situations
Here are a few: assessing what you can do/can't do, planning step by step how do carry out the goal once decided on, dealing with failure and feeling OK about it, the value of being someone that does what they promise, of being someone that can be counted on.
10) A relationship to soil and to the Earth
If we want the generations that succeed us to care about our planet, they have to feel a relationship to her. Dirt, upon which our eartly life depends, has a distressingly negative connotation for most people. For many who grow up in an urban environment, the "school garden experience" will be their only personal contact with the earth or with individual plants.
A leader in the Sierra Club once recounted to me what a relevatory experience her school garden had been. The stuff underlying the cement all around her (that she hadn't even realized existed) was revealed as something marvelously productive and valuable. It led to a lifelong involvement that otherwise would never have occurred.
Last Updated on March 23, 2011