How student-run school gardens are gaining ground as a teaching tool

In the UAE and around the world, schools have taken the premise that gardens should be incorporated into the school day one step further by using them as teaching tools for science, maths and healthy practices.

Children at American School Dubai learn about gardening tools. Courtesy Home Grown Children’s Eco Nursery
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Student-run vegetable and herb gardens are an "entry point" to enjoying school more, according to Steven Ritz, the founder of the Green Bronx Machine. Ritz, who likes to give presentations wearing a plastic yellow farmer's hat that's full of holes, was invited by Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Autho­rity to speak at a conference on "What Works" in January. When he first started teaching, Ritz took guns off middle-­school students in New York City's South Bronx area; now he hands them bags of groceries to take home. His approach to fighting gang culture, obesity and recidivism in one fell swoop was growing food in neglected public spaces.

The programme started out as workforce development. Students sold the food they grew and earned money. Then, teams of South Bronx students were hired to install roof and vertical gardens in the Hamptons and other upscale neighbourhoods across New York. Attendance jumped from 40 per cent to 93 per cent at Discovery High School, because students wanted to come to school to take part in the gardening programme. Along the way, Green Bronx Machine attracted recognition from the Pope, Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama.

Mouza Al Suwaidi, chief of engagement at KHDA, has two other reasons, besides the success of Green Bronx Machine, to encourage schools to cultivate gardens: studies indicate that children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables; add­itionally, research shows links between gardening and higher student achievement in science. School vegetable gardens allow kids to get their hands dirty, awaken their sense of smell and touch, and help them understand where their food comes from. When children plant their own seeds, they watch the stages of growth with a sense of connection to the cycle of life. They get a chance to be producers instead of consumers, while nibbling cherry tomatoes off the vine, and often become more open-­minded eaters.

In a city of largely for-profit schools, the question of a garden’s overall value moves to the forefront of the accountant’s spreadsheet. The answer, accor­ding to those who are looking at looming issues of climate change, food security and mounting childhood obesity, is that it’s a bargain. The expense of a garden is not the soil or the seeds. A garden can be started with minimal investment. Schools can generate compost from cafeteria waste and enrich the soil in the ground over time. And issues of space can be solved with vertical gardens, as demonstrated by Green Bronx Machine.

A larger expenditure is the salary for a garden coordinator – too often the last priority for administrators. Not just a science teacher with extra duties tacked on, a garden coordinator is in charge of planning the layout, scheduling class visits, arranging food supply with the cafeteria and, most crucially, linking the garden with the curriculum so it is used to its full potential.

In the UAE and around the world, schools have taken this simple premise – that gardens should be incorporated into the school day – one step further. For example, at the American School of Dubai in Al Barsha, sixth graders were studying ancient Egypt. So garden coordinator Sandra Carden set up a series of stations. One group made papyrus out of recycled paper bags. Another practised ancient farming techniques by constructing a shaduf, a levered irrigation system used by ancient Egyptians, out of bamboo, twine and yogurt pots. A third group milled wheat using a mortar and pestle, and a more modern mill. “Finding numerous cross-cultural links is only possible when you have a garden coordinator searching for these connections,” says Carden.

The ASD garden, which grows rocket, kale, three kinds of basil, Swiss chard, broccoli and hindbeh (dandelion greens), among other crops, is also used for Arabic lessons. Grade five students grow the vegetables to make tabbouleh, and then spend a day chopping and mixing. First graders, meanwhile, read a book called Two Old Potatoes and Me by John Coy and then grow their own potatoes in a vertical garden.

“The biggest obstacle I see when students, parents and teachers come to the garden at first is a fear of killing something,” says Carden. But the earlier you get kids into the garden, the greater the chances they will feel comfortable plan­­ting, weeding and composting.

At Home Grown Children’s Eco Nursery, which has bran­ches in Al Safa and Umm Suqeim, preschool children spend an average of two 40-minute lessons per week in the vegetable patch, in addition to many more hours outside in the rest of the garden.

"Many of our teachers prefer to hold classes in the garden," says head teacher Eithne Mulhern. They grow lettuce, chives, spring onions, carrots and tomatoes. Teachers find ways to match stories with what's growing in the garden. When a caterpillar appeared last week, they read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Colours, numbers and shapes for maths-ready skills are also introduced in the garden.

At Dubai English Speaking School in Oud Metha, Justine Bain, the founder of Sandy Seeds, has overseen a garden that grows plants suited to a desert climate: aubergines, cauliflowers, pumpkins, watermelons, radishes and herbs. Students pick tomatoes to learn weights and measurements for maths class. “It’s edible education,” says Bain. Moving into the kitchen, DESS students cook pizza with a cauliflower crust, prepare a salsa pot with roasted corn and Niçoise salad.

Back in South Bronx, Ritz uses plants mostly in the science cla­sses he teaches, but also uses seed plots to teach multipli­cation. The plants play a role in encou­raging reading, too. Children who are struggling with reading are seated in front of a vertical wall of budding plants with their books. The kids read to the plants and then break for lunch. When they return to finish their lesson, Ritz switches the plants out for larger ones, as if their reading has catalysed rapid growth.

Setting the bar for creative ideas on garden integration is chef and food activist Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, California. When studying The Silk Road in ancient China, students harvest leafy greens, coriander and garlic, and cook dumplings. A unit on the Roman Empire is complemen­ted by a lesson on how to make your own pasta, adding a sauce of gremolata using lemons, garlic and parsley from the garden.

A common thread among all these schools is that growing is only half the task. “It’s about seed to plate,” says Carden, who continually draws inspiration from Waters’s Edible Schoolyard project. Once a week, students provide rocket, kale, basil and radishes for the salad bar in the cafeteria.

Through a service-learning activity that takes place during school and after, students garden, cook and teach other members of the community about sustainable gardening practices. The popular activity for middle- and high-school students has them planting seeds, weeding, turning compost and harvesting vegetables. Most sessions offer a snack cooked by the students, using something from the garden. Recently, students made pesto from basil, which they spread on brown bread and topped with cherry tomatoes for a healthy tartine. “We used to sell the produce, but then kids didn’t get to eat it,” says Carden.

In the face of unprecedented food-related health problems faced by children, introducing young ones to gardening is one of the most effective ways to set them on the right course. The White House had the same idea in 2009, when Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the South Lawn. The way a garden transforms a school should not be dependent on an accountant’s ledger, because making links across the curriculum and taking the time to turn the yields of the garden into meals at school is a priceless investment.