Kids Learn Best When They Learn by Doing — Experiential Learning for All Maine Students

December 1, 2023

2023 Common Ground Country Fair Keynote: Friday, September 22

By Ryan Parker

FoodCorps was formed in 2011 with a mission to connect kids to healthy food through experiential learning with school gardens and cooking. Since then, many of our partner schools in Maine, particularly in the past five years, have been successful; meaning the schools have built school garden and cooking infrastructure and programming, developed more diverse school meal options and, most critically, are continuing programming on their own without capacity support from FoodCorps.

2023 CGCF 94
Ryan Parker. John Williams photo

Our partnerships have ranged from the largest districts in the state, including Portland and Lewiston, to some of the smallest communities, including Stratton, Stacyville and Princeton. One of the best things about experiential education is that it works anywhere, no matter how big or small, urban or rural. In addition to academic and emotional benefits, experiential learning, particularly in school gardens, creates unparalleled opportunities to merge the sometimes very separate worlds of classroom and cafeteria, providing benefits to children’s health and physical development with impacts throughout their lives.

In Portland, a Culturally Important Meals project — led through partnerships between FoodCorps, Cultivating Community and Portland Public Schools Nutrition Department — has resulted in African-inspired recipes and vegan meals being tried as part of the regular menu. The same project is happening in Lewiston thanks to a FoodCorps partnership with St. Mary’s Nutrition Center and Lewiston Public Schools Nutrition Department. This year, thanks to an expanded partnership with Cumberland County Food Security Council, we’re going to be able to develop culturally important meal opportunities, including halal meal options, for Westbrook and South Portland. These four districts comprise 14% of Maine’s students; the successes they continue to create can have a significant impact on meal patterns and participation in Maine.

Communities and students want to see themselves reflected in their school spaces, and there is no better place to do this than the school garden. In Portland and Lewiston this often means growing more diverse crops like okra and amaranth.

School gardens can and should be made to welcome every racial identity, cultural background, and ability. In Belfast, our service members partnered with local organizations to raise funds and build wheelchair-accessible raised beds, allowing students to bring their torsos right up to the edge of a bed for close exploration and learning.

Anyone who has ever had a garden knows they are malleable. If a school garden was designed without Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility in mind, beds can be rebuilt and paths can be smoothed and widened, all with students leading the work and planning. If community demographics shift, garden signs can be expanded to include more languages and new crops can be explored.

In addition to opportunities to see themselves and their heritage represented in schools, gardens and food present the chance to teach kids about other cultures. Falmouth Public School’s garden teacher, Farmer Justin, teaches kids about the history and cultural development of China through the growth, cultivation, harvesting and hand-threshing of rice grown in the school’s farm pond. These types of social studies lessons highlight the nearly infinite possibilities for students to build stronger connections to the standards teachers are required to teach.

Take learning how to calculate area and volume, which in Maine is a fourth-grade learning standard. There are some children to whom you provide worksheets and chalkboard explanations and they won’t understand, simply because that’s not how their brains work. But, if you have raised beds and layout square foot gardening grids atop them, those same kids will take one look at it and understand. This isn’t hyperbole; it has worked in both rural schools like the Etna Dixmont Elementary with a quarter-acre garden and urban schools with small raised beds atop pavement like Waterville’s Albert Hall School.

School gardens also encourage kids to engage in cooking, try new things, and eat more fruits and vegetables. In one FoodCorps-developed lesson, students work together to harvest, wash, chop, mix and then eat a fruit salad. Unbeknownst to them, they learn fractions, measurement, teamwork and how to share.

These types of social and behavioral skills also tend to be easier to develop through garden-based, experiential learning.

Every school with which FoodCorps has partnered has reported substantial decreases in behavior problems and office referrals upon instituting school gardens. As students have returned to in-person learning through the pandemic, schools across the country report alarming increases in student anxiety, depression, suicidality, bullying, and other emotional and social behaviors kids, and schools, are ill-equipped to handle. When kids get outside and move around in the fresh air and sunshine, or snow, or rain, or anything else nature has to offer, they are calmer, pay attention better, and can sit still more easily during the 30 minutes after they return to the classroom.

Another critical benefit — school gardens engage the broader community. Now, more than ever, educators are desperate to find ways to bring parents, caregivers and community members into their schools. This is very practical. The people who are most supportive of schools when it comes time to do things like pass the school budget are typically the people who have seen first-hand all the positive things students are doing. And a well-maintained, visible garden can be a powerful tool to garner interest, as can sharing or selling produce the kids grow.

Teaching children to grow food helps make them more resilient and self-sufficient, and teaches them the value we should be placing on farms, farmers and food. While creating and using school gardens is not meant to train the next generation of farmers, for some kids, that may be the outcome — and that’s great.

School gardens can be connected to any subject and can open a world of career paths. Some kids don’t have the slightest interest in how Brussels sprouts grow and are completely turned off by earthworms and bugs. Experiential learning programs built on school gardens and food education have room for those kids. Successful school garden programs often have robust community Facebook pages or newsletters, providing opportunities for kids interested in photography, writing, computers and graphic design. School gardens need infrastructure like hoophouses and garden sheds, providing opportunities for design, architecture, structural engineering, math, carpentry, plumbing, electricity and construction. School gardens reconnect us to the Earth and the cosmos through cycles and seasons and weather, creating opportunities for kids to get interested in climate, meteorology and space. School gardens need to be mowed in the summer, meaning there are opportunities for kids who are interested in fixing and maintaining engines. School gardens that produce abundantly can lead to sales to restaurants and grocery stores and to the school nutrition department, which means children can learn business skills and responsibility.

So, why aren’t all schools offering experiential education through garden programs? The answer is capacity.

Those of us involved in education know that asking anyone in a school to take on one more thing is a non-starter. We cannot expect the social studies teacher or head cook in the cafeteria to build and maintain a school garden.

This is where FoodCorps and, ultimately, LD 1682 – An Act to Create the Maine Experiential Education Program come in. Experiential learning in our schools requires initial support and training until the school is ready to maintain such programs on their own.

At FoodCorps, we call this “graduation,” and it often involves the creation of a position, someone to coordinate garden maintenance and connections to classrooms, the cafeteria and the community. If there is someone specifically there to do the work, there are plenty of resources to support them. We’ve been successful in helping several schools and districts create these types of garden and food educator positions.

But it’s not enough.

These opportunities should not be limited to students who happen to be in a school lucky enough to know about and have access to FoodCorps. Any community that wants this type of education should have schools that can support it.

LD 1682 puts Maine on that path. This bill, introduced in the Maine Legislature by Rep. Kathy Shaw and cosponsored by an equal number of republicans and democrats last winter, passed out of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry with an extremely rare unanimous ought to pass recommendation.

The full house and senate sent the bill onward to the special appropriations committee. Here it remains with the legislature adjourned, which means when they reconvene in January the bill is ready and waiting. What it will need is for each of you and your friends, and your schools and school boards, to contact your state representatives and senators and urge them to ensure their colleagues on the Appropriations Committee vote to fund this program and get Maine on the path to making universal, experiential garden education a reality.

Ryan Parker is the FoodCorps impact and partnerships lead, Maine; a board member for Full Plates Full Potential and the Maine School Garden Network; a leadership council member for Maine Farm to Institution; and a cofounder of the Maine Farm & Sea to School Institute.

This essay is adapted from his keynote speech at the 2023 Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. You can watch the keynote in its entirety at mofga.org/keynotes.

This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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