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School gardens are changing education for Connecticut's urban youth

Outdoor learning with Common Ground allows kids to get their hands dirty learning outdoors in school gardens. (J.D. Allen/WSHU)
Outdoor learning with Common Ground allows kids to get their hands dirty learning outdoors in school gardens. (J.D. Allen/WSHU)

A Monday in May poured sunshine over the playground and backyard of John S. Martinez Sea and Sky STEM Magnet School, where students recently broke ground on a fresh garden. A team of second graders had decided on the perfect spot for three new garden beds under the guidance of Hollie Brandstatter, an outdoor learning specialist from Common Ground.

The goal is to offer a different approach to learning, and playing in the dirt is bringing kids down to earth.

Common Ground is a New Haven environmental education center planting outdoor classrooms across the city and as far 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 per week.

On this day, Brandstatter led a group of pre-Kindergarten and fourth grade students to cultivate the garden beds. Students worked together to transfer soil — enriched with hearty earthworms — with trowels and buckets from a pile outside the school into the new beds.

Schoolyards Program manager Robyn Stewart emphasized the range of skills young kids develop through outdoor learning.

“Kids are interacting in a different context,” Stewart said. “There's more opportunities for both independence, developing independence, but also developing teamwork and collaborative learning.”

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

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

Geovanelys Morales, a fourth-grader, reports that her class has been learning about nature and bugs, and working with dirt in the garden so far.

“I think that they do a lot to the neighborhood,” said Morales when asked about the gardens. “‘Cause 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,” said Stewart. “We plant native species to provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies, bugs and other creatures.”

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

“For some of these kids, a few months ago when we started doing this was the first time they'd ever really gotten their hands in the dirt."

The concentration of pavement and buildings in cities traps and absorbs heat, leading to rising temperatures, increased energy costs and heat-related illness, called the “urban heat island” effect. Urban agriculture provides shade and regulates the atmosphere. Gardens also help manage excessive storm water and high energy costs from food transportation — when food is grown locally, it eases the need for produce to be shipped from across the nation and world.

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

She said that though school gardens are small in scale and rarely replace large-scale farms, the educational value is there. For students, the gardens provide an opportunity to connect with the outdoors they might not have otherwise and introduces them early to be conscious of the environment.

“For some of these kids, a few months ago when we started doing this was the first time they'd ever really gotten their hands in the dirt,” Stewart said.

Stewart said she believes it changes students' relationship with food production, too.

“A school garden is a great hands-on way for them to discover that food actually grows in the soil. And that they can have a role and a hand in growing it, in tending it, in harvesting it,” she said.

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At 9 years old, Morales wants to grow tomatoes and flowers in the new garden beds. And after they’re harvested, she hopes they’ll be able to take them home so she can try them with her family.

“School food gardens also offer an opportunity for students to taste fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, things they might not have tasted before,” said Stewart. “Those components create a foundation for a different relationship to food than it comes magically in a grocery store.”

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

Common Ground’s Schoolyard Manager Robyn Stewart assists a young student in scooping soil at John S. Martinez magnet school in New Haven, Connecticut. (Megan Briggs/WSHU)
Common Ground’s Schoolyard Manager Robyn Stewart assists a young student in scooping soil at John S. Martinez magnet school in New Haven, Connecticut. (Megan Briggs/WSHU)

Brandstatter and Stewart work to integrate many school subjects into outdoor education. The science at play is obvious, but they find ways to teach literacy, math and social studies too.

“There is not a subject area that I can't get outside, that I can't figure out a good way to connect it to the Earth and connect it to the garden connected to outdoor learning in some fashion,” said Stewart.

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’re working to transform education across the state and introduce students to alternative food production and an eco-conscious relationship with the outdoors at a young age.

The collaboration between teachers and Common Ground’s outdoor specialists have seen every subject area come to life outside. 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 of sticks, to practicing math equations with rocks.

Outside, Brandstatter encourages pre-Kindergarten kids to count dandelions, pick weeds and inspect the soil for squirming worms and beetles. Excited students sprint to their teachers to present their findings — a worm gently lifted out of the dirt and a story of a harrowing near-miss with a bee.

In pairs, they help each other carry buckets of soil across the yard to dump into the garden beds.

Granata-Basso observed that outdoor education has made a world of a 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-practiced in implementing positive behavioral interventions.

“This year, the major change has been that connection to the outdoors and really prioritizing it,” Granata-Basso said. “And I will tell you that kids actively seek out and ask for more time outside now because of how much they enjoy it.”

According to a landmark report from UNICEF, urban green spaces are crucial for optimal child development. Children with ample green space from a young age have better physical, mental and social development than children without.

Research shows that green space significantly improves mental health by reducing stress and depression, especially for low-income children. It also enhances a child’s concern for nature later in life — for a generation tasked with adapting to the changing climate. A factor as simple as the proportion of green around schools has been linked to improved cognitive development.

Staff aren’t immune to the allure of the outdoors either. Granata-Basso finds herself heading outside whenever she spots a class in the courtyard to join them in soaking in nature and show the kids that adults appreciate it, too.

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

Common Ground is working 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, particularly in cities, have less access to green space to start teaching outside — rain or shine. Teachers are not always equipped — including the cost of supplies — for outdoor education either, 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.

“Providing this opportunity for them is so unbelievably important because it levels that playing field and gives that experiential learning that they truly deserve,” she said.

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

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