We had the pleasure recently of speaking with Em Shipman, the Executive Director of Kids Gardening, an organization that seeks to create opportunities for kids to learn and grow through gardening. For educators or parents looking to engage their students or children with outdoor activities, Em delivered some extremely useful tips and information to get you started.
We've collected some highlights from the interview, and we've also included the full length discussion for your listening pleasure. We hope you you enjoy this information as much as we have!
Why is gardening so important for kids and students, and what are some of the benefits?
We try to work with the adults in children's lives—educators and caregivers—to support them to get more kids learning and growing through the garden. Because gardening is really a regulating activity for kids
So what do I mean by regulating? Well, when we go outside—and that's typically where we do most of our gardening—when we interact with plants more generally, it's calming to our bodies. There's a lot of data that suggests that working with plants, caring for plants, and being outside gives us all the the sensory input that we need, not too much, and not too little...sort of just the appropriate amount of sensory input.
So it's not overwhelming. Perhaps being in a crowded, noisy cafeteria at school might be, or on a noisy playground. But being in a classroom doing your standardized tests might be where everything has to be quiet, and you have to sit still, and not talk and not wiggle.
Schools can often be too much or too little for some youth, and we find that gardens are really wonderful places for kids to get their sensory needs met, calm their minds and bodies, and establish that baseline well-being that's needed in order to be able to learn. Then from there, the stage is set for learning.
"The garden is a living laboratory for learning."
It's a wonderful place to see cause and effect...You can see the impact of your actions directly on that plant. We can make hypotheses about—if I trim the leaves off this plant, will it grow new leaves in these spots, or in this other spot? We can practice the scientific method and really, the stakes are quite low for making “mistakes”.
We find the garden an excellent place to teach science. You can teach math for sure through the garden. Kids Gardening has developed a book called 'Math in the Garden'. We have curriculum called 'Books in Bloom' to teach literacy through the garden. You can absolutely teach about culture and diversity and different cultures...history with botany and horticulture plants and food, as well.
"Any subject can be taught through the garden"
It's just a really engaging space, engaging and regulating space for kids to be learning as opposed to sitting still—in chairs and at desks all day. It's good for kids, and we think that what's good for kids is good for communities as well.
In an increasingly digital age, what are some ways to engage kids and excite them about being outside and getting dirty?
Well, surprisingly, it doesn't usually take a lot. I think in schools, kids are typically eager to get outside, get out of the classroom, move their bodies, and it's less of an issue there. But I know, I'm a mom of two kids, and sometimes my oldest who's six—it's like, I don't want to go outside, there's more fun stuff to do inside. But as soon as we get out there, and we start digging around, he's into it, and he wants to stay out there for hours.
One good way, as with anything in parenting, is to bribe him with food. We grow really yummy food in the garden. We grow these snacking cucumbers, the varieties called Diva. Last year, we grow lunchbox peppers. Those are a small snacking variety too. It's really fun to just grab sugar snap peas off of the vine, or berries are great. I would say probably half of the produce that we grow doesn't even make it into the house, and that's great...
"One other idea is to create play spaces in the garden, and sensory spaces."
You can create sensory spaces with having tools for digging in the dirt, and reserving a little patch for kids to play and dig. Touching soil, playing with seeds, feeling soft leaves, prickly leaves—those are all sensory things kids can do in the garden. It's especially important for the younger kids.
For older kids, try creating forts. It can be really fun to create sunflower houses or forts. Putting stakes, like bamboo poles, into a sort of "teepee" formation, and then growing beans up those or growing sunflowers in a ring. Then kids can hang out in there and read books or play, and it's their own little secret space.
Those are just a couple of ways to lure kids out into the garden. But, you know, ownership is a good one too. Having a little piece of the garden that belongs to them that they can tend and grow whatever they want is a good way to get them engaged.
When schools have no history of gardening instruction or knowledge, what is the best way to get started?
Go to KidsGardening.org. There's a Getting Started section, and we have all kinds of resources on how to get started.
But I would say the first thing—if you're an educator listening and you are excited about gardening and you want to start gardening at your school with your students, the first thing you should do is find some colleagues who are also excited about it. Don't try to do it alone. I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but it's likely that you'll burn out quickly. It's a lot of work.
Find some colleagues that want to do it with you and start a committee. Maybe recruit a parent; recruit somebody that's part of buildings and grounds; recruit somebody on a school board or who is part of the administration or PTO. And invite students—if you have some older students. Then get a sense of what kind of garden would be most enjoyed at your school and try to get some buy-in from the administration.
You're going to need some money to do that, and Kids Gardening has about 5 different grant opportunities throughout the course of the year...just small amounts of money needed to get a garden started.
"It doesn't take a lot. You can start with $500 or $2500. Start small!"
Don't build some giant kitchen garden or a series of raised beds to get started. Start small and see how it goes. See what you like; what works and what doesn't. And go from there. We really encourage people to start with container gardening, because you can control a lot of the variables more easily that way.
In 2020, Kids Gardening awarded around $160,000 in grants. Can you talk about or highlight a few of those grants that were given?
One program comes to mind because it was really touching for me is a school in California—actually a club at a high school. This was entirely led by high school students. They went out and collected somewhere around 200 acorns from a really important oak tree in their community and their ecosystem. They soaked those Oaks and planted them, and they did this entire project with materials that they found or reused from their schools.
They didn't purchase anything, and they didn't create any new waste. They used milk cartons to plant the oaks, and they grew them to seedlings. Then they used them as part of a reforestation and carbon sequestration project.
It was really community building...We were really thrilled to be able to support them and doing that.
We had some projects that we funded where youth were growing food for their local food shelves and meal sites. We all know people were having a really hard time financially, and some people still are, but food shelves and meal sites were more important than they had been in decades. A lot of the garden programs that we funded this past year were at the forefront of providing fresh produce to those meal sites and food shelves. I really think that's beautiful to be able to feel like they can do something to help.
Gardening is great for kids of all ages. How is the experience different for toddlers versus teenagers in high school?
I think that's really important. In general, when we're gardening with kids, it's really important to align our expectations with their developmental stage and developmental readiness. With young kids—pre-K or infants—it's just about exposure at that age. It's really about building early positive associations with nature and the garden and a lot of those sensory experiences that I talked about earlier.
With my son, when he was under a year, I would just give him little cups of seeds to feel and play with, with this tiny little fingers. I can distinctly remember the first time both my sons dug their hands into the dirt. We have raised beds, and it was sort of like a baptism, just getting in there and getting dirty.
As kids get older, you can more structured and provide more direction. Often people use garden-based learning as a way of teaching about environmental issues, threats to habitat, and climate change or environmental issues. I like to encourage educators and parents to wait to talk about some of the bigger, scarier issues until kids are a bit older and able to do something about those issues.
"As kids get older, we're providing more direction and instruction and structure, and we're exposing them to more advanced concepts and more advanced issues that might be going on in the broader environment."
Pollinators are a really good place to start when kids are in elementary school, and then you can build on that as they grow, to talk about what's going on with bees, and eventually, it can grow out to our food system. Then you can talk about migrant labor, or you could talk about organic agriculture.
That's the exciting part about garden based learning. When kids are little, you just are focused on the micro aspects. As they get older, you can sort of zoom out.
More About Kids Gardening
Visit KidsGardening.org to access a variety of educational resources, learn more about grant opportunities, and see how you can help. Also check out the Kids Gardening Community, a place where educators, parents, and volunteers can collaborate, ask questions and learn more about gardening with kids.