A child takes his first bite of spaghetti squash and discovers he likes it. Students pick lettuce they have watched grow from seedlings. Another puts the finishing touches on a planting of broccoli.
Across the country, youngsters are getting up close and personal with gardening, nature and the environment through Project Learning Garden—an initiative of the Atlanta-based Captain Planet Foundation. Founded by Ted Turner and now chaired by his daughter, Laura Turner Seydel, the program supports school gardens in 18 states and is available in the lower 48.
“Project Learning Garden creates onsite learning laboratories for youngsters to understand the origins of food, the environment and nature through gardening,” says Leesa Carter-Jones, executive director of the foundation. “We began with just a handful of schools in Atlanta in 2009. We’ve now grown to help support hands-on garden learning in almost 350 schools across the country.”
These school gardens are made possible by grants from the foundation and funding by the schools’ communities. Regional and national corporate partnerships also support the gardens. For $3,000, a school receives enough materials to create five raised garden beds with organic soil and fertilizer, a lesson supply kit, a mobile cooking cart, a garden tool starter kit and a wagon, plus access to online teacher training.
“The materials are customized by grade level and include best practices for teachers to introduce gardening to their students, while teaching standards in science, math, language arts and more,” Leesa says. “We’ve been able to implement Project Learning Garden across the country without having ‘boots on the ground’ by providing tools that give any elementary school access to the program and its assets.”
The concept takes food production from garden planning and seed planting to tending, watering, harvesting and then preparing the food to sample. The process is hands-on, depending on age. Students are supervised and coached by teachers.
“Our mobile cooking carts give the students a chance to prepare foods in a healthy way right there in the garden,” Leesa says. “Then they get to sample what they’ve grown. It connects students to nature and their food and helps them broaden their palates alongside their classmates. When one student agrees to try something new, others join in. It’s positive peer pressure. The earlier kids try new foods and learn to make healthy choices, the better their long-term health.
“There’s a great deal of social and emotional learning going on, including cooperation, teamwork, empathy and kindness. Additionally, the gardens provide a strong setting for learning math and science. They’re an excellent way to promote science, technology, engineering and math learning. It’s certainly a win for the schools, the community and, most of all, the students.