When I was in elementary school, I took the subway down to Battery Park City every weekend to participate in an outdoor community gardening program. We planted peas, carrots, lettuce and flowers in a small park at the tip of Manhattan. We got to measure the growth of our plants each time, and taste them when they were done. We ran experiments like determining which fertilizer could make the plants grow faster. I also took the train to upstate New York every few weekends to visit a working farm and play with the animals while learning how to cook different seasonal crops. I was interested in gardening and learning through outdoor education, but it was difficult to find the opportunity right around me. In a city where most students don’t even have sports or recess on real grass, spaces to garden in can be even rarer to find unless a lot of effort is put in. However, opportunities for students to garden have been increasing in New York City schools. Since I left my public elementary school, they have opened an entire hydroponic greenhouse on the roof. Educators are becoming especially aware of opportunities for students at lower income schools to have these opportunities. My mom has started leading school gardening programs, and one thing I have noticed from her work is that even schools without the resources or opportunities to start their own gardening program can still implement an outdoor education program by using public parks. Every week, she brings students to explore Central Park.
My Elementary School’s New Greenhouse
Benefits of Gardening Programs and Outdoor Education
I knew gardening was an important way for students to become involved with nature, but I hadn’t thought of all the other practical skills that could be learned from it. Students can be given a lot of responsibility when setting up and taking care of the plant beds. They learn about the technology behind hydroponics and other indoor systems that are used. Math teachers can use fractions to help optimize planting space, and explain proportions in a more hands-on way. Social studies and history teachers can explain the cultural history that can be discussed through different crops and their preparations. Chefs can teach students to use more nutritionally rich and health fresh food. Outside of a school setting, communities benefit from gardening programs because having gardens and flowers can improve a neighborhood aesthetically and increase its access to healthy food. Young children can also be connected with older members of the community when united through gardening.
Grassroots Community Organizing
From my research, I have found that grassroots gardening organization spring up in vastly different ways and with different goals each time. Sometimes one leader who may already have an interest in gardening decides to organize and create a gardening program. Other times, leaders like Stephen Ritz with little gardening experience turn to outdoor education as a possible solution for problems in classrooms and communities. Each leader can impact a different group of people–a classroom or a community–in equally important ways.
I am impressed by all the incredible people who have created community and grassroots organizations around this. They have followed in the footsteps of leaders like Ella Baker and Paulo Freire. It was interesting to read in class about organizers like Baker, Freire, Obama and Dewey, and then see aspects of their methods reflected in real grassroots organizations in New York City.
When doing research to find examples of grassroots organizations, I originally expected each organization to be about the same. I thought they would all have the same goals–giving people seeds, shovels, etc. Instead, I found that each one addressed a completely different difficulty in implementing gardens in cities. While some organizations trained community members so they could facilitate meetings about gardening, others implemented mapping technology to find empty lots at affordable prices to match prospective schools. Some even worked with professional chefs to utilize the newly grown food in schools. This research helped me realized all the niche opportunities there are to get involved in community gardening. Anyone with a variety of interests can community organize and get involved, and the benefits for the schools and individuals involved are numerous.
I hadn’t known much about the complexities of implementing gardening programs before I started this project. I am glad I was able to use this assignment to learn more about something I didn’t know about, in a city I know so well.