Sanctuary in the Schoolyard

Growing a space for reflection, connection and hard work

Date August 31, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Lodging & Travel


A school garden is an oasis among the hot gravel yards and concrete that surround them. Green, growing things occupy a space in a mysterious, reassuring way that provides companionship. Quiet and calm reign among the growing vegetables, flowers, butterflies, bees and bugs. The pulse of time slows in the spaces students and their instructors have created. Snow peas and beans climb schoolyard fences, sunflowers nod their yellow heads to the bees, and cabbages throw back their baby-bald heads with complete trust. Given all the incredible things a child can learn from a garden—responsibility, cooperation, our connection to the earth and our food—maybe every school should have one. This idea is fueling a movement with roots from Michelle Obama’s famous White House garden to Santa Fe’s own schoolyards.

Sue McDonald, a parent and head gardener at Acequia Madre, says that two of the primary gifts a school garden gives are sanctuary in the schoolyard and a place to do meaningful work. “Children choose to be in the garden area at recess to do what is needed: plant, dig, water, draw and visit,” she says. “Often they say they come for the quiet. It has become a nurturing place in the middle of a playground of hard-edged equipment and screaming children.”

Christina Selby is the executive director and cofounder of Earth Care International, a Santa Fe-based organization that educates and empowers teens through the philosophy of sustainability. “[Gardens] provide a link to the outdoors, a connection to the natural world, a reminder that we are part of something bigger than ourselves—something that will take care of us if we take care of it,” she says. “Gardens provide a space for quiet reflection as well as hard work. They challenge kids to get dirty, to drop their modernist concerns for fashion and material things and stick their hands in the dirt (although many of our girls garden in high heels and love it).”

Schoolyard gardens are an inviting refuge for reflection and stewardship, but that’s just the beginning. Some might argue that pulling children out of their desks and the classroom works directly against academics and student performance. The more we learn about learning, however, the more we find the opposite to be true.

Priscilla Logan, creator of Santa Fe’s Outdoor Classroom, explains, “There is wonderful research on the effects of outdoor classrooms. One nationwide study with 40 schools in 12 states during three years showed both student and teacher improvement—in standardized test scores, attendance, student enthusiasm and engagement, teacher enthusiasm and commitment toward education…in other words, a real winner. Most activities outdoors are hands-on. Bethel Institute in Maryland showed a retention rate of five percent with lecture, 50 percent with demonstration, and 75 percent with hands-on learning. If those students teach others, it goes up to 90 percent retention!”

The learning opportunities a garden offers are so abundant that curricula have been developed matching state standards to the outdoor classroom. Le Adams, co-director of Santa Fe’s Farm to Table and director of its offshoot, Farm to School, which works with farmers to get local produce into the SFPS cafeterias and students out to the farm, listed some of the subjects taught in a garden: “math, science, health, physical education, social and cultural studies, music and language arts. I have a library of curriculum ideas that can be used by teachers to develop, build and teach in a garden, all related to the state educational standards. Some kids really learn best when the work is hands-on and is outside.”

In her work with Earth Care, Selby has seen “inspired teachers use gardens to teach economics, government, leadership, group dynamics, communication skills, ecology and conflict resolution. School gardens are a piece of a much larger puzzle being worked on globally to live well on this earth and with each other.”

Julie Dean, a parent volunteer who has dedicated innumerable hours to the Alvord Elementary garden, has had a chance to see the application of an outdoor classroom in action. “The teachers were great at adapting the school lessons to the outdoor classroom. We estimated seeds on a stalk, used hand spans to do multiplication, measured the volume of water in a hose, measured the perimeter of the garden and [students] made their own designs [of the garden] using graph paper, which they refined into a second drawing in the classroom.”

The smell of wet earth, the low hum of bees going about their honey making, the flowers bobbing their heads in a breeze, the sweet taste of a snow pea planted by your own hands—every sense is engaged. Gardening has something to offer a young person at every stage of development. For younger kids, the pure sensations of gardening provide invaluable stimulation, and stewardship of the plants encourages a sense of protective ownership. Dean notices this stimulation and ownership in the Alvord students at all grade levels.

“Beginning last fall I took the fifth graders and the second and third graders out into the garden for an hour each week,” she said. “They collected seeds and planted bulbs, the older students mentoring the younger. They made a bird sanctuary and waited patiently until the birds came, which they did. They had their garden areas that began with the bulbs and evolved into small personal gardens that the students defined by rock borders (their idea). [My sister] Dodie donated a large apple tree that one second and third grade class adopted. They hauled the hoses, watered the tree, and drew in their science journals, recording the same branch each week. They took it really personally if someone broke a branch. They were like the Lorax for that tree.”

As that child grows into a young adult, the garden continues to be a place of stewardship, as well as a place of empowerment, grounding and belonging. “(Teens) don’t feel ownership,” says Erin O’Neill, Monte del Sol Charter School’s garden coordinator. If teens don’t have ways to feel useful, they get angry, she said, and gardens give them a place to put many skills to use. “One or two generations of kids don’t know what it’s like to be outside and to work. In the garden they learn that they have an impact; they learn the garden is theirs, but they must care for it.”

“In elementary schools,” Selby says, “I think gardens’ primary role is to reconnect kids to nature, to their personal health, and begin to recognize how their actions affect the world. In high school it becomes a motivator for authentic learning and community engagement or activism. They can provide young people, who are often disenfranchised and lack hope about their futures, a way to contribute solutions to the problems that ail our society—to feel they have an immediate role to play and a value in our community.”

Since everything mentioned about gardens has been true for decades, why have so many school gardens sprung up in the last few years? Authors Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Richard Louv were mentioned repeatedly when I asked this question. Waters has visited Santa Fe to show us the value of growing what we eat; Pollan encourages us to eat food ­— not the “edible foodlike substances” that have seeped into almost every item at the grocery store; Louv reminds us how critical it is to send the kids outside. It feels as if we have come to a crossroad.

“People here are really seeing the change in the health of our community’s kids,” Adams said. “Some want to blame the fast food industry or the big agro-industrial complex or the lure of increased ‘screen time’ or the decrease in physical education in schools or the school meal program—but it is a combination of all of these. Plus the fact that so many people don’t cook at home, are actually afraid of the outdoors, or don’t sit down as a family together to have meals as much as we all used to. Our kids are overweight and have a lowered health outlook because of all these factors and more. The general public is looking at growing more of their own food. With that, they see that kids spending time in a garden is a logical extension of these folk’s desire to reconnect with where their food comes from and the beauty, mystery and science that can be experienced in a garden.”

Food and community are so closely linked that it is no surprise that our school gardens also bring people together, as McDonald has seen at Acequia Madre. “The garden is a community creation,” she says. “The children, families, staff and neighbors are proud of their garden and care for it well. Children of all ages work together on the garden and now this summer, elders from the neighborhood are with us.”

“The Santa Fe community has been incredibly supportive of our garden,” Dean says of the Alvord garden. “Nearly everything was donated or purchased with a grant specific to the outdoor space. Our neighborhood has been wonderful in offering support and plants, planter boxes, potting soil. We have wonderful advocates here in town.”

School gardens can’t thrive without a community. Over the years many school gardens have come and gone in Santa Fe but when just one teacher or parent spearheads and maintains the garden the garden dies when they leave or get burned out. Says Selby, “Here in Santa Fe, school gardens are part of a city-wide movement towards sustainable food systems. Not every school garden has recognized this connection yet. I’ve seen gardens start and quickly wither and die, and I’ve seen gardens change lives. Like any living system, you get out of it what you put into it.”

Nina Ruiz of Santa Fe is a writer and a mother of two daughters.