On an unusually warm afternoon at Mountain Mahogany Community School, the fourth-grade class is working in a garden under the guidance of teacher Lisa Slavick. The campus feels like a little Eden tucked away from bustling traffic on Fourth Street; fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetable and flower gardens all burst with life.
After they arrive, the students meet as a group, then splinter off into smaller units to work independently on various projects. The young gardeners cooperate to round up compost, plant seeds or harvest basil. In one area of the garden, two kids thin out the strawberry patch. They are focused on their task, and a sense of calm surrounds them.
It’s a sweet thing to watch children get their hands in the dirt. Beyond the adorability factor, though, research shows that these activities benefit students in a myriad of ways. According to the National Gardening Association, school gardens serve as a “vehicle for encouraging children to make good food choices, augmenting classroom studies with experiential learning, building a love of nature, stimulating social interaction, facilitating cultural exchange and more.” It’s no wonder a growing number of schools in Albuquerque are using gardens to enrich the educational experience.
Students at Escuela del Sol Montessori, for instance, are compost experts. They can tell you how long it takes for a pair of old blue jeans to decompose and how human hair and worms benefit the process. On the day I visited, Juli Kois, the garden guide for the students, supervised two children working in the compost. First, they removed a top layer of big sticks and food scraps to reveal a pile of decomposed material writhing with red wiggler worms, roly-polies, grubs and other creepy crawlies. Then they sifted the compost over a wheelbarrow using a homemade screen to remove larger pieces. They were also careful to save the grubs as a snack for the school’s chickens.
It’s a sweet thing to watch children get their hands in the dirt. Beyond the adorability factor, though, research shows that these activities benefit students in a myriad of ways.
Kois, apparently unconcerned about dirtying up her clothing, enthusiastically climbed into the compost bin to shovel out more material for the boys to sift. She said she likes to conduct “experiments.” That’s how she got the idea to add her worn-out jeans to the pile. They took about a year to break down until all that remained were the buttons. Another time, a biodegradable diaper was added, and it took only about six months to decompose. When students directly witness the benefits of their recycling efforts or learn how unwanted scraps become compost that helps plants grow, they reach a greater understanding of human impact on the environment.
Although most garden programs are in elementary schools, older students gain just as much as little ones. According to a report produced by a local organization called the Growing Gardens Team, “School gardens incorporate group learning, allowing children to use skills that are not always appreciated in a regular classroom, such as physical strength, visual-spatial skills and building experience.” The same report states that garden teachers often observe that students who struggle in the classroom tend to shine in the setting of a garden. Several studies have shown that group learning is associated with better peer relationships and higher academic achievement.
At John Adams Middle School, seventh-grade Life Science teacher Brie Montaño helped start the communal garden to teach her students about photosynthesis and life cycles in a hands-on way. However, the garden has offered educational value that far exceeds just one subject area. Now in its fourth year of production, the school hosts a vegetable market every growing season, and students are encouraged to help harvest and sell produce.
Not only do kids at John Adams connect their classroom lessons to the garden, but their diets benefit from eating food they grow. And students discover that their school garden is a community asset. At the vegetable market, neighborhood families can get fresh, delicious produce at a reasonable price. In turn, the school garden is supported by these sales. The school hopes that sharing the bounty of the students’ efforts with others will foster high self-esteem—and encourage wellness by helping everyone make healthier food choices.
Teachers and students attest to the benefits of school gardens, and they’re optimistic about the engagement and enjoyment they achieve in these outdoor classrooms. As the garden programs expand, more Albuquerque students stand to gain a cornucopia of benefits beyond that of simply harvesting a ripe, juicy tomato.