As a grandmother of three darling children, I worry about so much: Are they happy? Are they healthy? Are they eating good food? Are they getting enough exercise? Are they learning enough math, science, reading, writing, art? Do they think I am the best nana in the whole world?
Fortunately, their schools have one place that alleviates my worries (except maybe that best- nana one), and that is the school garden.
This is not just wishful thinking on my part. A growing body of research supports the idea that school gardens can help meet many educational and nutritional goals for our children. The University of California at Davis actually has a school garden program to educate students and teachers about developing, using and sustaining school gardens to educate children.
Their suggested lesson plans show how to teach reading (using seed packets and plant descriptions), math (measuring planting depth, rainfall or temperature) and science (exploring how things grow and soil composition). Gardens can also be used to teach history, literature, art and culture.
Imagine a sixth-grade teacher introducing a section on Native American or Latino culture. Students could plant a historic herb garden or a “three sisters” garden (corn, beans and pumpkins).They could research the history of these cultures in our country and write or create art about what they have learned. Then they could cook what they have grown and perhaps learn to eat something that they have never tried. All these activities start in the school garden, where they are also getting exercise away from electronic screens, learning healthier eating habits and learning to work as a team.
A first-grade teacher might read The Sunflower House by Eve Bunting to his students. The children could then collect seeds from a dried sunflower head, create planting pots from newspaper and care for seedlings until they were big enough to plant in a “sunflower house” in the garden.
They could simultaneously work on writing and drawing skills by producing illustrated stories about the sunflowers. And they could boost their observational skills by noticing how their sunflower house grows, how pollinators seek out the blooming sunflowers and how birds come and eat the ripe seeds.
These garden activities are the ones students will remember long after they have forgotten many other lessons. I hope I have convinced you that a school garden makes an effective outdoor classroom for your children's or grandchildren's school.
The sad truth is, many school gardens fail or are not fully utilized. They lack funding, ongoing support from the school community and training for teachers on how to use the garden. Napa Valley Unified School District policy states clear support for school gardens as a way to improve student wellness and nutrition. But there is no money in the district's admittedly limited budget to support school gardens.
All too often, one teacher or parent enthusiastically takes on the garden, only to move on to another school without integrating the garden into the curriculum sufficiently that it survives and thrives without them. Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project is one exception, but teachers are rarely taught how to use the garden nor given suggestions for garden lesson plans.
These challenges are surmountable but require effort from the community.
You can help make school gardens a reality for more students. You can volunteer to start and maintain a school garden or donate materials, tools and time to an existing garden. Or you can assist the new grassroots group of garden teachers and coordinators formed to support school gardens in Napa.
Reach out to your local schools or the school board to offer assistance. Connect with the new grassroots group by contacting the U.C. Master Gardeners of Napa County's School Garden Task Force at 707-253-4221. Leave a message about your interest and a task force member will get back to you.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.