This week I have two different links to follow. One of them is fun and inspiring; the other raises some serious questions about gardening’s place in education.
Link #1: The Fun Theory
Volkswagen hit on a clever and useful idea when it came up with The Fun Theory.¹ They proposed that making a task more fun could change behavior for the better. Using creative thinking, they found a way to make people want to perform a task that they might otherwise choose not to do.
My favorite of their experiments is the subway staircase made into piano keys, where people can compose their own little ditties as they take the stairs instead of the elevator. Volkswagen asked, “Can we get more people to take the stairs if we make it fun to do?” Watch the video for the answer!
Just think: If we had fun incentives to recycle, exercise, clean up, make good food choices, etc. wouldn’t it be great for our environment and our health?
Link #2: Cultivating Failure
This topic is especially close to my heart because we have a fantastic garden program at our elementary school. From March through October the kids get to plant, harvest and learn about the vegetables, fruits and herbs in their very own garden. They weed, till, build vegetable beds, fertilize with compost, and paint signs for their garden. The kids start seeds indoors and plant peas in early spring, as soon as the frozen ground can be worked. They get to eat their own strawberries and play on the playground right next to their burgeoning garden. We culminate the growing season with a school-wide Harvest Feast, where each different class cooks something using the produce that’s currently in season and available in their garden.
I and other parents think our gardening program is a wonderful addition to the curriculum that gives our children hands-on experience in producing the food they will eat. It works great for our community.
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame started a similar program, the Edible Schoolyard, in a Berkeley, CA city school back in 1995. In a view opposed to the current school garden curriculum, Caitlin Flanagan writes about the Berkeley and similar California school garden programs in her Atlantic Online article, Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens are Cheating our Most Vulnerable Students.
Garden Food for Thought?
Flanagan raises some very important questions about the place of gardening programs in floundering California schools. If these programs replace time that could be spent learning the math and English skills needed to graduate, are they doing the children more harm than good? What about the children of immigrants who have spent years toiling in fields in order to send their children to school in the US? What do they want their children to learn at school?
My state is full of semiliterate 14- year-olds. Let their after-school hours be filled with whatever enriching programs the good volunteers and philanthropic organizations of California care to offer them: club sports, choruses, creative-writing workshops, gardens. But until our kids have a decent chance at mastering the essential skills and knowledge that they will need to graduate from high school, we should devote every resource and every moment of their academic day to helping them realize that life-changing goal. Otherwise, we become complicit— through our best intentions—in an act of theft that will not only contribute to the creation of a permanent, uneducated underclass but will rob that group of the very force necessary to change its fate. The state, which failed these students as children and adolescents, will have to shoulder them in adulthood, for it will have created not a generation of gentleman farmers but one of intellectual sharecroppers, whose fortunes depend on the largesse or political whim of their educated peers.²
It’s a very thought-provoking read. Perhaps school garden programs need to be tailored to the needs of the community. Rather than doing away with school gardens, maybe some districts could offer elective or after-school gardening classes.
Some cities make wonderful use of communal gardens, such as the Nuestras Raices farm in Holyoke, MA. Here’s another Atlantic article about this ultra-successful group of gardens: A Papaya Grows in Holyoke. (I’ve visited Nuestras Raices and eaten at Mi Plaza — yum!)
Young people run things at Nuestras Raíces (“Our Roots”), the nonprofit agency Ross heads. They’re allowed to screw up and figure out how to fix their own problems. Many agencies around the country encourage similar activities: city gardening, youth training, healthful eating, entrepreneurship. But few have integrated themselves with equal reach and results, or helped rebuild as troubled a community as Holyoke.³
What do you think?
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1. The Fun Theory: An Initiative of Volkswagen.
2. Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens are Cheating our Most Vulnerable Students, by Caitlin Flanagan. Atlantic Online, January/February, 2010.
3. A Papaya Grows in Holyoke, by Corby Kummer. Atlantic Online, April, 2008.