Good Roots: The Benefits of Outdoor Agricultural Education on Public School Students
by Barbara Lynn Weaver
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”
Agricultural science and the natural world have found themselves pushed out of increasingly competitive school environments. Students from pre-k onward are being prepped for college acceptances instead of for our changing environment. The lack of attachment to green spaces and the reinforcement of fluorescent halls has led to increased negative effects on today’s youth, particularly in their education and overall health. This paper explores the overarching need for environmental education in public schools through access to classroom farms and gardens. Detailed are the benefits of implementing “agriscience” into public school classrooms, with a focus on the Durham Public School System’s Hub Farm. This organization will be used to evaluate the impact gardens have on the habits and long-term wellbeing of students. The paper aims to offer a holistic evaluation of the benefits of gardens and farms in public school classrooms, and their ability to build our youth for the future.
Part 1: The Durham Public School System’s First Farm
I pulled into the tiny gravel parking lot wedged in between an elementary school gymnasium and a public library. I grabbed my sunglasses out of the center console, smeared sunscreen across the bridge of my nose, shut the door, and set off to the farm. There were signs scattered in the woods that pointed visitors down the hill and toward the farmhouse. An old stump in the tree line read, “Where the sidewalk ends… the adventure begins…” and another, “Where the wild things are.” The volunteers and I met up on the bank of the pond, just to the side of the floating lab and a host of paint-peeling picnic tables. Bees hummed among the wildflowers as the resident beaver had his nap in the afternoon sun. The whole thing felt golden and idyllic. I then spent the better part of three hours weeding in the garden and sanding down picnic tables for their new coat of paint. The very much adult part of me was at peace. The admittedly larger, more child-like part, however, was absolutely itching to race off through the forest trail, chase the chickens, and sprint up and down the rows of soon-to-be-vegetables. I think I hid the restlessness rather well, but I can only imagine what an elementary schooler would say or do in my shoes. With rich soil and sunshine comes rich narrative, and arcadian pockets like this, The Hub Farm, possess the unique ability to change the American narrative, or lack thereof, surrounding education and our food. Students who spend time in gardens and on farms have a greater understanding of the connection between health,community, and the earth, a rarity in an ever-competitive, technology driven world. Farms foster the development of well-rounded, empathetic problem solvers, and therefore deserve a place in public school systems.
In 2010, just 21.3% of US Public elementary schools had functioning school garden programs (Bridging the Gap). The term ‘school garden programs’ can cover “a continuum of efforts to increase the horticultural complexity of the schoolyard, including potted plants, raised beds on asphalt, indoor vermiculture,” and outdoor farms (Blair 16). At the time, all Durham Public elementary schools were part of the 78.7% that had no such program. Existing gardens and farms were most commonly found in large urban schools and “less common at schools in which more students were eligible for free or reduced-priced meals” (Bridging the gap). Unsurprisingly then, in that same year, Durham County provided free or reduced-priced meals to 60.81% of its students, with several of its elementary schools providing upwards of 95% of meals at a free or reduced-price. According to an article in the architectural journal, Buildings, “The literature consistently shows that high quality urban open spaces including natural elements and formal play opportunities are inequitably distributed in cities. In particular, low income and ethnic minority groups tend to have less access.” Correlations regarding access to school garden programs and yearly family income are no coincidence. Schools with high populations of students living below the poverty line tend to be the schools with the least access to outdoor spaces, such as parks, farms, and gardens. This creates further disadvantages for schools with high populations of marginalized students, as green spaces are dutiful teachers of life, community, and the natural world.
In 2012, Durham County became an exception to the rule: a school district that both subsidized the majority of its students’ meals and had a functioning district farm. This all thanks to a singular parent, who asked the district board why nearly 30 acres of vacant, public school land behind Eno Valley Elementary School were going unused. Educators and community members brainstormed potential uses for the land, but ultimately landed on the Hub Farm, which at it’s heart is a space for students and staff to engage with the environment. Five years since its opening, the farm now boasts a woodland nature trail, perennial creek, pond ecosystem, working farm, and floating laboratory. It serves as a field trip site and outdoor classroom for all 65 public K-12 schools in Durham County, and offers curriculum based activities in the water cycle, farm life, and biodiversity. Not to be pinned down, the farm is also “a hub for several DPS priorities, including student health, career readiness and community engagement” (Hub Farm). The Hub Farm seeks to further improve “the academic achievement and health of students in Durham Public Schools through project-based learning in outdoor environments”, and represents the innumerable interdisciplinary opportunities available in agricultural education. Despite the growth in school farm and garden programs like the Hub Farm, still more than 70% of schools in the US lack adequate outdoor agricultural education. Expansion of such programs across the board is beneficial to student success, childhood health, and the development of necessary interpersonal skills.
Part 2: Academic Enrichment
Outdoor education today is largely constructivist, which wards off passive learning by encouraging students to piece together conceptual puzzles. In this style, students are meant to build their own knowledge, rather than be force-fed information for memorization. Constructivist agricultural education employs hands-on activities that are mentally and physically stimulating. Hub Farm field trips, for example, have students taking water samples, cooking fresh produce, learning to forage, observing beehives, and exploring on their own (Hub Farm). Active learning requires students to work in groups and ask questions, but ultimately they are the curators of their own knowledge. A study in the Journal of Environmental Education showed that “an overemphasis on factual knowledge has led to weakness in processing skills and critical thinking in the average U.S.student” (Blair 19). On the other hand, an emphasis on inquiry based knowledge, found in abundance on farms, creates flexible, more successful learners. There are significant “increases [in] standardized test scores, enhanced attitudes about school, improved in-school behavior, and improved attendance when students learn in and about nature” (National Wildlife Federation 14). Outdoor education, such as can be provided by farms and gardens, is then vital to the cultivation of student success.
Through farming, students are shown to display more interest in school. The change in scenery and varied landscape offered by farms and gardens is a welcome respite from often monotonous schoolyards. The fast paced, seasonal variations of plant and insect life in cultivated green spaces are far more likely to engage the curiosity of students than more common concrete and grass yards. Curiosity is a key tool in childhood development, not to mention in scientific success. A study showed that “the science achievement of students who participated in a hands-on school gardening program was higher than that of students who did not participate in gardening activities as part of their science curriculum” (452). The active learning required by farms and gardens promotes problem solving skills that form the foundation of scientific achievement. This type of constructivist outdoor education is necessary because “the elementary grades are an especially critical time in the development of an interest, or disinterest, in science” (452). The perception of a scientist changes when students spend a class time on a farm. No more are scientists lofty, untouchable figures with white lab coats and a beaker, but rather explorers and adventurers who spend time outside everyday.
The worth of outdoor agricultural education programs extends well beyond scientific achievement and interest. While those things are wildly important, as Wendell Berry says, “farming has to do with everything.” Connections can be drawn between farming and biology, history, art, and everything in between. Often garden programs are shunted in favor of seemingly more essential subjects, like reading and math. However, public schools with existing programs use their farms and gardens as vehicles for dozens of other types of learning, truly demonstrating the interdisciplinary nature of farming and food. “Already, Hub [Farm] has made connections to curriculums in agriculture, carpentry, nutrition, environmental science, physical education, and culinary arts” (Rick Sheldahl). Combining less hands on subjects, like history, with agricultural education makes lecture-style classes accessible to students who learn in other ways. According to the National Wildlife Federation, one reason that this overlap is possible is because “outdoor education effectively employs a greater range of children’s intelligences” than classroom education.
The academic life of public school students can be further enriched through the introduction of career-technical skills. Farms and gardens provide students with career skills that cannot be manufactured within four-walled classrooms, thereby growing more well-rounded scholars. Public school farms can employ student help in all aspects of farm life, from crops to marketing to produce sales. Natural life is multifaceted, and much like the possible interdisciplinary educational approaches, farms offer opportunities for skill development beyond the traditional crop narrative (in which farmers are assumed to spend all day walking through fields of corn). Farms are businesses, and “by linking on-farm activities to business models such as a farmstand, farmers markets, and CSA’s, students build skills in entrepreneurship and the foundations for resilient careers” (Hub Farm). The Hub Farm, and programs like it, pride themselves on creating “exciting ways for students to engage in the relevancy of any subject in the living world” by connecting farm life to all other aspects of life (Hub Farm).
Part 3: Health and Wellbeing
Constructivist-style outdoor education is radically beneficial in part because it facilitates movement oriented activities that occur in sharp contrast to the stationary ones normally enjoyed by students. A typical day for a public school student in Durham County involves between 5 and 7 hours of indoor seated instruction, which is sure to be followed by several hours of seated homework once the students return home. In the last several years, many schools have moved away from long outdoor breaks and recess, in favor of more instructional time, but not without consequences. “The costs of America’s “indoor childhood” run deep. They include increased child obesity, diabetes, and asthma, reduced ability to relate to other children and adults, less realistic life expectations, inability to concentrate, more aggressive behavior and a higher likelihood of personal isolation” (National Wildlife Federation). Unlike the average school day, a single class period spent on a farm is sure to include walking, bending, and other aerobic movements. Outdoor agricultural “is active and increases students’ physical, mental and social health. Some studies have even shown follow-up (e.g., non-school) physical activity increases with outdoor learning” (National Wildlife Federation). The benefits of farm and garden time extend beyond the classroom. Students who are encouraged to spend time outside during school hours are then more likely to spend time outside after school, thereby increasing daily physical activity. Outdoor class time is also shown to reduce school related stress, which decreases the likelihood of student anxiety and behavioral problems. Through “EIC (environment as an integrated context), students decreased their absenteeism by 22 percent and their suspensions by 36 percent from the previous year” (National Wildlife Federation 14). Not only is outdoor agricultural education more likely to get students moving, but it is more likely to get students to show up for, and stay in school.
In addition to active learning, students also stand to benefit from the healthy eating lifestyles modeled on campus farms. For many children today, food is a product of the grocery store rather than the earth. This mindset occurs as a result of a lack of agricultural education and the existence of a highly packaged, take-out oriented food culture. Packaged food is frequently higher in sugar and oils than fresh fruits and vegetables, but because the packaged foods are available in abundance, students are more likely to eat them. According to Barbara Kingsolver, “The multiple maladies caused by bad eating are taking a dire toll on our health- most tragically for our kids, who are predicted to be this country’s first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” What students eat and where they think it comes from has a direct impact on their physical health. For example, “today one in three children are on track to develop diabetes at some point in their lives” (American Grown 173). Poor eating habits, caused by a culture that prioritizes standardized tests over food education, have severe impacts on the life of students.
Slight changes in diet, such as those to include fruits and vegetables daily, significantly decrease instances of chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Farms provide opportunities for students to plant, grow, and taste fresh produce. The Hub Farm offers a field trip to DPS elementary schoolers called “From seed to belly” in which students harvest and cook a meal as a team. “Students become farmer-chefs,” and at the end of the day, they take home recipes and ingredients to share with their families (Hub Farm). By doing the gardening themselves, instead of listening to someone tell them what it is like to garden, students grow both food and a sense of pride. A green bean from the grocery store is just a green bean, but a green bean that a student plucked straight off the vine represents much more. That green bean represents time, accomplishment, and hard work, all of which compel that student to eat it, and then to go home and tell their parents about it. Food production combined with nutritional education connects students to agricultural systems of daily life in and beyond the school. Additionally, “these early lessons about nutrition can affect the choices [students] make about what they feed their own children decades from now. For many young people, school gardens and youth gardening programs across this country have been the starting point for this journey” (American Grown 137). Eating habits are lifelong, and infusing public school lunches with food from campus farms and gardens encourages student habits to change in response. Gardens and farms are more than just seasonal field trip spaces, but rather permanent promotions of long-term nutritional health.
Part 4: Community Engagement
Farms and gardens are great places for students to build their own knowledge systems, but these spaces are certainly not an individual affair in terms of maintenance and growth. Agricultural education is highly team based because it takes many hands to grow and build and harvest. Because of this, “outdoor classrooms provide natural entry points for families and community members to get involved with student learning” (National Wildlife Federation). Parents and willing volunteers will find no shortage of work to be done in gardens and on farms. The White House Kitchen Garden, for example, works with D.C. public schools to improve childhood nutrition. It was built with the primary goal of supporting healthy eating, but “without anyone expecting it, [the] garden had become a community garden, connecting people from all different backgrounds, ages, and walks of life” (Michelle Obama, American Grown). Community forms where there are common experiences and goals, appearing almost unexpectedly out of classroom activities and hard work.
The Hub Farm offers open workdays on the first Saturday of each month, where community members spend an afternoon improving the farm. My first visit to the farm was on one of these workdays, and the community members that volunteered their time were impressive and surprising. I met a couple in the midst of buying their first home who just wanted a break from their realtor, a mother and father looking to teach their daughter the value of helping others, a man with graying hair who helps out on field trip days, a farmer from the land adjacent, and a woman who said that “the website looked interesting.” Of the 12 volunteers, only four were parents or students of the public school system. 12 people came out on a Saturday afternoon, all for different reasons, to ensure that the garden would be a well-kept place to visit and the picnic tables would be painted. Despite it being my first visit to the farm, and not knowing the other volunteers, I felt responsible for the farm, like DPS students do. When students learn from school gardens or farms, those places become special to them. I put in three hours at the farm on my first visit, and by my second visit, I was showing other people where things were and offering up information about the farm. There is both pride and ownership in farm communities. I think a fifth grader from one of the Durham Public Schools said it best: “I honestly thought the 5th grade was a bunch of papers and homework. But in the end, it was not. Some of the 5th grade was the Hub Farm.”
Part 5: Conclusion
The Hub Farm began when a parent inquired about the acres of unused land sitting behind Eno Valley Elementary School, and since 2013, it has provided outdoor agricultural opportunities for over 2,000 public school students. In building a farm, the Durham County Public School System built a community for its students and teachers, and empowered educational change. While the farm is for the whole district, the three closest schools demonstrate the greatest benefits: “The farm is within walking distance to Eno Valley Elementary, Carrington Middle, and Northern High, who reinstated its agricultural science program last year with a focus on biotechnology, environmental science, and urban farming” (Rick Sheldahl). With regular access to facilities like farms, school districts can reinstate curriculums and programs that focus on environmental and agricultural studies, and aiding the success and health of their students. Programs like the Hub Farm offer time in nature for students who may live in neighborhoods without equitable green space. Given that outdoor agricultural education improves the quality of learning, life, and community for any student that participates, public school districts should seek to take advantage of it. Schools farms and gardens are necessary and beneficial because they grow good vegetables and good students at the same time.
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