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Reaping the benefits of hands-on learning in DIS's school garden

Published on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020

two DIS standing above a garden bed

BCSD photo/Monica Kreber

There is something very exciting about finding little critters in a garden.

These critters include worms, frogs, ants and snails. Worms are usually a very big hit with kindergartners at Daniel Island School, who typically respond with a chorus of “A wooorm!” when someone finds one squiggling in the dirt.

DIS has a few community garden beds behind the school building that students tend to as part of their curriculum. Those beds started up in 2016, managed and cared for by volunteers from the Daniel Island community to educate children using science-based growing techniques. The beds are offered for lease to residents who want to grow their own vegetables and flowers.

Since then, the garden has evolved through a partnership with the Green Heart Project, so that students can grow their vegetables – which they can later take home.

On Nov. 2, Laine Holmes’s kindergartners were in the garden to harvest sweet potatoes that were planted earlier this year, and later plucked a few ripe radishes. The students have also planted other items including lettuce, purple carrots, turnips, onions, spinach and kale.

“Today we talked about the parts of the plant, what plants need, and they’re…learning about making healthy choices and learning to care for the environment,” she said.

Holmes asked her students what is their favorite part of being in the school garden. Some students said digging, and some said finding bugs.

That particular day they also learned about what pests are good and bad for a garden. Ants are good for the soil, but snails are bad because they will eat the vegetation.

Nonetheless, if students found a snail or worm (and they eagerly recovered several), they would let the critters return to the garden; Holmes said her class makes a point to respect such things they find in the garden beds and leave them alone.

Students also help haul old vegetation to the compost, which creates great material for garden soil for the students to keep planting.

Harvested vegetables are later bagged up for the students to take home.

“We just love having them outside – especially now,” Holmes said.

Holmes said DIS is in its second year working with the Green Heart Project, whose primary mission is growing fresh produce with students to get them more exposed – and excited – about healthy foods. Students are involved from planting the seeds, to tending the plants they cultivate, to harvesting and then eating what they grow, and learning along the way.

DIS and Green Heart Project had been in communication for a few years before formalizing the partnership in 2019. The DIS community, led by Courtenay Fisher with the school’s PTA and Wellness Committee, approached Green Heart looking for support in integrating their existing school and community garden with the school’s academic curriculum.

Fisher said when her family moved to Daniel Island she was thrilled to see the school had a community garden, but learned it was underutilized by classes. After first working with the Daniel Island School and Community gardeners, who donated their time and knowledge to helping teach lessons and maintain the garden, Fisher said it made sense to consider expanding the reach of the garden lessons by partnering with a group that had a broader catalog of lessons keyed to state standards, plus the experience of teaching those lessons locally and offered guidance or even hands-on help to take the burden off of volunteers.

Fisher did some research and after meeting with members of the Green Heart Project, she knew the organization's mission could help support the school's garden lessons.

The Green Heart Project began at Mitchell Elementary in 2009 as a service learning project with third-graders. Since then Green Heart has expanded its work with nine gardens in the Charleston area and 12 partner schools. DIS is the only partner school in Berkeley County at this time.

Fisher has a background in serving as a Functional Nutrtitional Therapy Practitioner, and said she firmly believes everyone should know where their food comes from, and educating children about real food is fundamental to overall well-being -- and a garden is a great place to start.

"When we began, the benefits of non-traditional learning and time outside were widely recognized but the value of an outdoor learning space has only multiplied given the current pandemic," she said.

Fisher said the partnership with the Green Heart Project has been fantastic.

"We’re fortunate to work with an awesome team, and love the way our teacher liaisons have embraced the garden lessons.  Our weekend Work & Learns also offer a chance for families to come see what’s growing and to be part of the process," she said. "Ultimately the success of the program will depend upon teacher involvement and continued support from the administration, so it’s great to see all these pieces coming together."

Allie Astor, program coordinator for Green Heart, said the organization saw the school had a thriving garden, supported by the community gardeners, a motivated parent community and a supportive administration and staff, “making this a great school to bring on as part of our new ‘affiliate program,’ where Green Heart plays a supportive role, training and empowering the DIS community to run their own version of Green Heart programs & lessons.”

girl in kindergarten holding up a sweet potatoe

BCSD photo/Monica Kreber

The garden serves as an outdoor “learning laboratory”, perfect for reiterating classroom curricula with a focus on STEAM standards through applied learning experiences. Additionally, students are connected with fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables as they participate in the growing, harvesting and cooking processes. Through these hands-on, outdoor learning experiences students learn not only about topics of gardening, health, culture and the environment but they also focus on our core value of respect and practice essential social-emotional learning skills while working alongside fellow classmates and volunteers, the “Green Heart Buddies,” in the garden.

Astor said the garden also provides an opportunity for community building and mentorship. Green Heart is not directly involved with the community garden beds, but the organization does spend time in the garden with the families who tend to the beds. Historically, community gardeners, students and families, and school staff have all come together for Garden Work Days.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for students and families to learn from community gardeners and all work together to upkeep and maintain the garden space,” Astor said.

The pandemic has affected many aspects of Green Heart’s mission. With the challenges of maintaining health and safety of staff and school communities, the restrictions on outside volunteer presence at schools, and the shift toward virtual learning, The Green Heart Project has adapted and innovated its programs to allow the organization to continue connecting with schools and engaging with student.

“We have implemented strict COVID-19 Safety Guidelines, including mask requirements, social distancing, frequent sanitization and capping events at 15 participants, that we follow at all in-person garden events,” Astor said. “We have adapted our program curriculum to create 'Green Heart at Home,' which include simplified, low resource lesson plans to complete in an at-home learning environment.”

At DIS, teachers are using these lesson plans and activities to complete Green Heart sessions and use the garden on their own during the school day. With COVID-19 Safety Guidelines in place, Green Heart has been able to host monthly Work & Learns on Saturday mornings in the garden, where teachers, parents and students come together to work in the garden and engage directly with Green Heart staff. 

This past summer, Green Heart completed construction of the Urban Farm at Enston Home, the organization’s newest half-acre farm on Charleston’s upper peninsula.

“This space has opened up the opportunity for us to bring local schools and community members to us, and we have begun hosting COVID-safe in-person workshops with students and families in the community,” Astor said. “With these adaptations and innovations, we are still working hard toward our mission of educating students, connecting people and cultivating community during the pandemic.”

teacher showing radish to three students

BCSD photo/Monica Kreber

Monica Kreber