School gardens are changing the education of Connecticut’s urban youth

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A Monday in May flooded the playground and courtyard of the John S. Martinez Sea and Sky STEM Magnet School with sunshine, where students recently broke ground on a new garden. A team of second graders had decided on the perfect spot for three new garden beds under the guidance of Common Ground Outdoor Learning Specialist Hollie Brandstatter.

The aim is to offer a different approach to learning, and playing in the dirt brings children back down to earth.

Common Ground is a New Haven environmental education center that plants outdoor classrooms across the city and as far away as Hamden and Wallingford. Their Schoolyards program has partnered with over 20 New Haven public schools and led the installation of a number of school gardens, most recently at John S. Martinez. Common Ground Outdoor Learning Specialists typically visit partner schools at least one day a week.

That day, Brandstatter led a group of pre-kindergarten and fourth graders to cultivate the flowerbeds. The pupils worked together to transfer soil – enriched with hearty earthworms – with trowels and buckets from a pile outside the school into the new beds.

Schoolyard Program Manager Robyn Stewart emphasized the range of skills young children develop through outdoor learning.

“Children interact in a different context,” Stewart said. “There are more opportunities both for independence, the development of independence, but also for the development of teamwork and collaborative learning.”

Even a simple task like moving the floor presents opportunities for personal growth.

“These are kids engaging in real work that needs to be done. And there is also a lot of fine motor skills [skills]gross motor skills and teamwork that happens here,” observed Stewart.

Geovanelys Morales, a fourth-grade student, reports that her class has learned about nature and insects and has worked with soil in the garden so far.

“I think they do a lot for the neighborhood,” Morales said of the gardens. “Because the bees come, and they give things to the flowers.”

She’s right: green spaces do a lot to support healthy urban environments.

“School gardens help provide habitat for local wildlife,” Stewart said. “We plant native species to provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies, insects and other creatures.”

According to a 2014 study from Columbia University, urban agriculture like community gardens are a form of “green infrastructure” – they create a healthier environment by mitigating the negative impacts of climate change.

“For some of these kids, a few months ago when we started doing this was the first time they really got their hands dirty.”

The concentration of pavements and buildings in cities traps and absorbs heat, leading to higher temperatures, increased energy costs and heat-related illnesses, known asurban heat islandeffect. Urban agriculture provides shade and regulates the atmosphere. Gardens also help manage excessive rainwater and the high energy costs of transporting food – when food is grown locally, it eases the need to ship products across the country and around the world.

“It’s an urban oasis with all the benefits it provides in terms of habitat for native species, reduction of the urban heat island effect, plants to clean the air, reduction of runoff and protection of our waterways,” added Stewart.

She said that although school gardens are small and rarely replace large farms, the educational value is there. For students, the gardens provide an opportunity to connect with the outdoors that they might not otherwise have and introduce them to environmental awareness early on.

“For some of these kids, a few months ago when we started doing this was the first time they really got their hands dirty,” Stewart said.

Stewart said she thinks it also changes the students’ relationship with food production.

“A school garden is a great hands-on way for them to experience that food actually grows in the ground. And that they can play a role and participate in its cultivation, its maintenance, its harvest,” she said.

At 9, Morales wants to grow tomatoes and flowers in the new garden beds. And after they are harvested, she hopes they can take them home to try with her family.

“School gardens also give students the opportunity to taste fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, things they might not have tasted before,” Stewart said. “These components create a basis for a relationship to food that is different from the one that magically comes from a grocery store.”

The outdoors can be a classroom for every subject and provides social-emotional learning benefits.

Common Ground Schoolyard Supervisor Robyn Stewart helps a young student pick up soil at the John S. Martinez Magnetic School in New Haven, Connecticut. (Megan Briggs/WSHU)

Brandstatter and Stewart strive to integrate many school subjects into outdoor education. The science involved is obvious, but they also find ways to teach literacy, math, and social studies.

“There’s not one area that I can’t get out of, that I can’t find a good way to connect it to the Earth and connect it to the garden connected to outdoor learning in some way or another,” Stewart said.

Common Ground’s Schoolyards program is a founding member of the Connecticut School Garden Alliance, joined by New Britain ROOTS and the Hartford School Garden Council. They are working to transform education across the state and introduce students to alternative food production and an eco-responsible relationship with the outdoors at a young age.

The collaboration between teachers and outdoor specialists at Common Ground has allowed each subject to come to life outdoors. At John S. Martinez, educator Alyssa Granata-Basso said basic foundational skills can be developed in the dirt — from identifying the alphabet with letters made from sticks to practicing math equations with rocks.

Outside, Brandstatter encourages preschoolers to count dandelions, pick weeds and scour the ground for worms and wriggling beetles. Enthusiastic students rush to their teachers to present their findings – a worm gently lifted from the earth and the story of a harrowing near miss with a bee.

In pairs, they help each other carry buckets of soil across the yard to dump in the flowerbeds.

Granata-Basso observed that outdoor education has made all the difference for her students. At John S. Martinez, social and emotional learning strategies are central to their pedagogy – the method and practice of their teaching – and educators are well trained in implementing positive behavioral interventions.

“This year, the major change has been that connection with the outdoors and its priority,” Granata-Basso said. “And I’ll tell you, kids are actively seeking and asking for more time outdoors now because they appreciate it.”

According to a landmark report of UNICEF, urban green spaces are crucial for optimal child development. Children who have large green spaces from an early age have better physical, mental and social development than children who do not.

To research shows that green spaces significantly improve mental health by reducing stress and depression, especially among low-income children. It also reinforces a child’s concern for nature later in life – for a generation tasked with adapting to climate change. Something as simple as the amount of greenery around schools has been associated with improved cognitive development.

Nor are the staff immune to the lure of the outdoors. Granata-Basso finds herself stepping out whenever she spots a class in the yard to join them in immersing herself in nature and showing the kids that adults appreciate it too.

“Even just having that moment when, you know, I’m having a tough day — putting my hands in the dirt really motivates you,” Granata-Basso said.

Common Ground strives to bring outdoor education to Connecticut students, one school at a time, but there are a limited number of school gardens in the state. Some schools, especially in cities, have less access to green spaces to start teaching outdoors, rain or shine. Teachers are not always equipped — including the cost of supplies — for outdoor teaching, which Common Ground seeks to change with professional development programs.

Granata-Basso said she recognizes that, for some students, the school gardens are the only chance they have to connect with the outdoors.

“Giving them this opportunity is incredibly important because it levels the playing field and gives that experiential learning that they really deserve,” she said.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by WSHU.

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