School garden or Maoist labour camp?

If it weren’t an unashamed regurgitation of Caitlin Flanagan’s silly and inflammatory anti–school garden rant in the Atlantic last year, this month’s Toronto Life story denigrating school gardens—the cover sells it as “The Stupidity of School Gardens”—would be shocking and infuriating.

As it is, the story simply reads as willfully ignorant and completely missing the point.

The author argues (as Flanagan did) that when children are already struggling with reading and writing in our schools we shouldn’t  be sending them out to dig in the dirt.  She also maintains that with many students in Toronto coming from first-generation immigrant families where they have gladly left behind their agrarian past, the last thing they need is “a morality crusade about carrots.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with that kind of crazy talk, but I’ll give it a shot.

First of all, school gardens like the one at our school are not being used to replace lessons on reading and writing and math and science. They are being used as a hands-on tool to help make those essential subjects relevant. So a teacher might be teaching measurement, and instead of using a textbook or forcing active kids to sit still at their desk, he takes them outside to measure the garden beds and figure out how many seeds can go in a particular plot. Or they learn about pollination and bees in science by observing it in action. The gardens are a living classroom, a school’s own personal laboratory. They help make learning fun, active and applicable to real life. In my experience, that’s when kids remember what they learned and their newfound knowledge becomes part of who they are. What more could we ask of education? (If you said academic performance, check out the research in Pediatrics journal that shows kids who have access to school gardens do better in school.)

As to the question of the relevance of teaching immigrant children about growing food and plants, my response is why not? School gardens are not Maoist labour camps (as the author suggests), they are wellsprings of connection and community.

In many school gardens, the children are encouraged to share knowledge and stories about the foods and plants unique to their cultures. In a school with lots of Caribbean kids, for instance, the garden might be host to okra and callaloo. With opportunities to celebrate who they are and where they come from, kids learn about and appreciate one another, breaking down stereotypes in the process.

Of course, breaking down stereotypes isn’t strictly the job of the education system, but it’s part of it. Indeed, it’s a strange retrograde idea that schools are supposed to be only teaching the 3 Rs. What is this—1880? (Come to think of it, lots of schools had gardens then, too.)

Schools have always been places where communities can come together, where learning is about so much more than what’s inside the textbook. The school garden is simply an extension of that.

All this, of course, is leaving aside the enormous potential benefits for kids learning about the links between healthy eating/growing and the environment and their health—with more than 25% of Canadian kids considered overweight or obese, it’s hardly a fringe concern.

I’m not the only one who found the article absurd. Check out the response from Green Thumbs Growing Kids’ Sunday Harrison (quoted unfavourably in the piece) here.

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