This is the first installment of several blog posts reflecting on gardening and youth education.
At a recent school garden clean-up in Paterson, NJ, I was deeply impacted by a brief interaction with a group of middle school girls that spoke to the subtle essence of youth education. As part of my responsibilities in City Green’s School Grounds program, I helped a class of about 20 middle schoolers maintain their garden by picking up trash and litter, composting the vegetable plants and weeds from their raised beds, and performing other basic tasks.
|A camper from the City Sprouts program taking a photo with vegetables picked from the City Green Eastside Park Learning Garden|
Their teacher, a master of efficiency, split them into several groups that would each work separately on a raised bed. I was walking among them offering advice and encouragement, as well as avoiding the wild swings of trowels, when a trio of girls triumphantly yanked a sprawling tomato plant right from the ground. Laughing with broad smiles flecked with dirt, they reveled in their accomplishment as I congratulated them, “Great job, girls, that one didn’t stand a chance against you!”
One of the girls, gripping her tangled prize, looked at me and proudly exclaimed, “Yeah, it didn’t stand a chance because we are strong girls with girl power!”
“Yeah, you are! Go girl power!” I quickly affirmed, pleasantly surprised that the trio of fifth graders were so vocally self-empowered.
A second girl in the group knelt back down over the raised bed and reached for another hapless tomato plant, saying, “We are strong and we’ll prove it to you!”
“No, no,” I replied, “You don’t have to prove it - I already know you are all strong girls.”
And, in a moment I hope to never forget, the girl turned to her friends and declared quietly, “See, Mr. Colin thinks that we’re strong.”
When I realized that I had unexpectedly supported fifth grade feminism, I was proud. Although I had set out that day to help clean up a garden, I felt that our interaction had embodied the immense potential of working with youths in a garden, as well as having the privilege of being a person that can empower them with skills, knowledge and value.
|Campers dancing with Growing Strong Camp Counselor during the summer|
It was truly humbling that a group of girls had looked to me for assurance that they are strong and worthy of respect and admiration. They certainly are. This experience demonstrated that inevitably more happens in a garden than planting crops or turning over soil for the next season - children have someone to encourage them, look up to, and learn from. No matter how trivial or small your home or local garden may seem, it is important to remember that it is through gardening and mentorship that our children learn to grow more than just vegetables, they grow themselves.
City Green is proud to run School Grounds, City Sprouts and Growing Strong - three programs devoted to working with children and youth where they can enjoy hands-on garden and education programming.
by Colin English