At my house, the answer to the question “What did you do at recess today?” is anything from “ran around and played soccer” to “well, Charlie is training to be a ninja, so I helped him practice by trying to sneak up and attack him.” (That always goes over well with the playground monitors.)
However last week, he came home with the most constructive answer yet. “I helped plant some of the gardens.”
Every spring for the last four years the perimeter of the schoolyard has been transformed into a miniature farm, thoughtfully laid out and painstakingly tended by master gardener and community activist Bonnie Acker.
Of course she doesn’t do it all alone. On that particular day, the spreading of compost, sprinkling of seeds, and digging in the dirt was shared among the couple hundred kids who wandered over to help when the mood struck.
They hauled wheelbarrows, raked out the beds, and as far as I know, managed to resist jousting with shovels.
It’s likely that many were motivated by finding perfect red raspberries nestled between the leaves and briars during recess last fall. I know that’s what my son was thinking about. In August, raspberries were hard won, due to both popularity and scratch factor. Sun gold tomatoes on the other hand, were in plentiful supply. The branches drooped, heavy with fruit. For weeks, whenever we visited, I’d find my toddler crouched under the towering 6 foot tall plants scavenging for the ones that had let go.
Bonnie deserves a national holiday. For over two decades she planted beautiful gardens in front of the local co-op and library, often with her daughter in tow. In fact, it was her then 3 year old’s suggestion that they do it at all. The co-op needed day lilies, she declared. After getting permission and supplies, they set to work, just the two of them. They loaded shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the dumpster to make way for compost until the dumpster actually tipped.
“Someone went inside to tell customer service and they said, ‘That’s not possible – it’s just a mom and her 3-year-old out there.’ But we had!” Though her own child is now an adult, she donates countless hours to very appreciative schools, students, and parents. Talking to her, there’s no doubt her brand of passion for teaching kids about growing and eating healthy food could change the world.
Green beans and peas are usually planted along much of the school’s chain link fence, which divides the school yard from a well traveled 3 way intersection.
“Mom, when we were out there planting, people honked and waved all the time,” my son reported. “I think they really like our gardens.”
The smiles and beeps of appreciation could out-sweeten the raspberries.
Of course there are many reasons to plant a garden with kids. It gives them a deeper awareness of the environment and the workings of nature. It teaches patience and can offer a sense of confidence and achievement. Sure, it can also convince them to eat vegetables they’ve vehemently refused for years, but that sells short the real potential.
Gardening, particularly in a public space, is a lesson in community. Schools, parks, community garden spaces (you can check here for one near you), even your front yard, offer kids (and grown ups) the opportunity to connect with neighbors and friends. “I don’t know of many other places in our culture where people just stop and say hi,” says Bonnie.
During the school’s big planting day, kids happily shared tools and turns (it’s easier to hand off physical labor than a turn on the swing, that’s for sure), and many passerby paused to compliment them on their hard work. At pick up, there were a lot of kids with mud streaked knees and mile wide smiles. And lots of parents being given a tour of all the excitement to come.