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The Evils Of School Gardens

January 12th, 2010 · 5 Comments · Posted in kids

Careful: gardening could be dangerous

Careful: gardening could be dangerous to young children

Is it possible to write a hatchet job about something as innocent as school gardens?

Apparently so. I would not have believed it, but there it is in the otherwise esteemed Atlantic magazine, a venomous screed that would have you believe that gardening constitutes a sinister scheme to take over our nation’s schools; that schools are turning kids into farm workers; that the educational establishment is throwing math and reading to the dogs in favor of growing arugula.

It sounds more like satire out of  The Onion, or perhaps a goulish Tim Burton storyline. But according to author Caitlin Flanagan, we would do better to keep the kids’ heads buried in books and simply build more supermarkets where they can buy vegetables. Really. “This seems to me a more sensible approach to getting produce to children than asking the unfortunate tykes to spend precious school hours growing it themselves,” she writes. “Why not make them build the buses that will take them to and from school, or rotate in shifts through the boiler room?”

Flanagan, who for some bizarre reason finds school gardening ripe for sarcasm, is incensed by a “notion of the school day as an interlude during which children can desperately attempt to cheat ignorance and death by growing the snap peas and zucchini flowers that are the essential building blocks of life…”

Brother. It’s hard to know whether Flanagan truly has a bone to pick with school gardens, or was simply seized with an impulse to  wage literary jihad against Alice Waters and her “Edible Schoolyards.” With her vision of a perfect union of education, soil husbandry and bourgeouis culinary arts, Waters makes an easy target for a prowling wit. In Flanagan, one senses an arsonist’s craving for mayhem at the expense of truth.

A former New Yorker contributor and mercurial social arbiter, Flanagan is perhaps best known for writing a book called To Hell with All That, a meditation on modern  housewifery about which Publisher’s Weekly concluded: “Flanagan’s take on why modern mothers are conflicted about their roles is so witty and well researched…that it’s easy to overlook that she offers no evidence to back up her chief notion ‘that women have a deeply felt emotional connection to housekeeping.'”

Similarly, I find very little in Flanagan’s arguments against school gardens to take seriously–except, perhaps, that The Atlantic would deign to publish them. There’s not a shred of authenticity in her contention that gardens threaten to undo child learning. By the sound of it, she has never spent a moment’s time in a school garden or even spoken to anyone who has. As someone who has built and worked in an elementary school garden, who has been involved for some years in the issue of school gardens here in the District of Columbia, I can say unequivocably that Flanagan’s dire scenario bears no resemblance to actual experience. 

When teachers at my daughter’s urban charter school came to me with the idea of building a garden, I had no idea what I was getting into. Because the school didn’t have any soil for a garden, I built wooden containers on a rather large (1,600 square feet), asphalt-covered side yard and filled them with soil trucked in by a landscaping company. It was a lot of work–as much work finding the money and support to build the garden as anything else–but something I hoped would lead to increased options for the kids, most of whom had never seen food grown before.

According to Flanagan, this should have been the end of learning at my daughter’s school: core classes would crumble under the weight of a new garden-crazed curriculum; kids would become slaves to an anti-diabetes diet of non-stop vegetables; immigrant children would be forced to relive their parents’ experiences as field hands.

 The truth is, gardens–including school gardens–pretty much grow themselves. Other than watering and occasional weeding, there’s not much to do once the seeds are planted. For the couple of years that I worked with the kids in our after-school gardening program, the biggest challenge was coming up with new activities.  For classes during the school day, the garden was simply an occasional teaching tool.

Some teachers liked to take the students into the garden to write essays or poems (reading and writing). Others used the planters as places to paint or mount mosaics (art). In some of the classes, I volunteered to plant seeds in little pots so the children could watch them sprout (science). We also started a composting bin so the kids could learn about micro-organisms and the decomposition process (more science) and the importance of healthy soil. And of course they learned about the wondrous process of ph0tosynthesis, how plants turn sunlight into food (still more science).

I tried to turn the garden into a writing experience. After performing some simple chores outside, or perhaps just taking a stroll around the garden to see what our plants were doing, we would retire to a classroom and jointly write an essay about the experience. We would then post it on our own garden blog. The kids were learning not only writing and communication skills, turning observations into descriptive sentences and paragraphs, but something about the world of computers and publishing as well.

When our lettuce and carrots ripened we spent maybe an hour or two occasionally turning those into salads. It was then that the kids taught me something important: how much they love making their own food. Give a kid a salad spinner, a vegetable peeler, a box grater and she will want for nothing more. Kids will fight over a chance to wash lettuce.  (Hey, I even taught them how to make a vinaigrette mixing vinegar and olive oil. It’s called an emulsion–more science.)

Perhaps they did learn something about nutrition and health in the process. At least they learned where food comes from (not necessarily McDonalds), and they may even have developed a taste for fresh vegetables. I can’t believe any of them suffered for it.

I have seen other models where school gardening is conducted by science teachers during science class. Or perhaps the garden is supervised by an art teacher with a green thumb and a hankering to get outside after school. Usually, building and keeping a garden is a challenge for everyone involved because the truth is, most school administrations are not into gardening. They are too preoccupied–like Flanagan–with reading and math and test scores.

Always, the garden is an adjunct to the regular class routine, a way to bring alive–quite literally–what the kids are reading in books, to connect them in a very real way with the living world unfolding around them. Is that not the very essence of learning?

Reactions to the Atlantic piece are pouring in. Read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

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  • brannyna

    This would be comical if it were not so scary. So many communities and schools have worked so hard to develop the gardens that they have. It is a shame to have their hard work diminished by one woman who seems to take issue with the whole idea of sustainable living. Rather than compromising education, as Flanagan asserts, the gardens add to the learning experience and hopefully teach children (and their parents) a little bit about healthy eating habits along the way.

  • annenagro

    Well said, Ed! Ms. Flanagan’s comments seem so off base as to not even be talking about the same thing. That is, school gardens and the community and peer learning that develop around these urban oases. Perhaps her goal is to draw attention to herself. Or, maybe she’s never been invited to get her hands dirty. Either way, Ms. Flanagan, if you’re reading this, I welcome you to join our 400 second graders having fun while we learn outdoors in the garden in Gages Lake, Ill.

  • peacegarden02

    Without having read her article, it just sounds ludicrous. Maybe it’s another example of someone in the spotlight for saying outrageous things. I wonder how many mathematical and technological inventions were spurred by the desire to improve farming? Many I’m sure. Also, the fact that gardening projects connect kids to their school (so they will be more likely to stick with the regular classes) is a great benefit.

  • bewing

    I read this dreaful article, there is so much a child or anyone for that matter can learn through the process of growing things. Perhaps the author needs an organic gardening timeout.

  • BethBotts

    Ed, a passionate post. My take: School gardens work as well as their schools do. Blog post: