by Stacie Carter
“Let Nature be your teacher.” – William Wordsworth
In 2010, Laurie Brekke and Hope Hanlon sat amongst a group of women, one of whom dreamed of starting a garden. Being mothers of young children, they loved the idea of getting their daughters’ thumbs green while also helping a friend.
They reached out to a few families with an idea. “We thought about a ‘come-to-you play date’ where we would take turns planting gardens at each others’ homes.” A short email yielded a response so large they had to stop at 26 families and within days, two groups of 13 children began gardening two days a week in each others’ backyards.
Brekke and Hanlon are now the proud founders of GoSprouts.org, a non-profit organization with the goal of bringing garden-based education to schools.
With their guidance, the students of Atlantic Highlands Elementary School and, most recently Middletown’s Ocean Avenue Elementary School, see what comes from a life with your hands in the dirt.
“Kids are natural gardeners. They make the connections between what they do out in the learning garden and what they’re learning in the classroom,” said Brekke, who’ll be one of the featured presenters at TEDxNavesink 2014. Working with hundreds of children has shown that. Teachers, on the other hand, were a bit skeptical up front.
“We thought it was going to be the opposite of what we found, that kids might view it as a free-for-all and that teachers would see the value of the learning garden immediately.” But feedback was mixed. Teachers questioned the ability to add working outside in the gardens to a curriculum already bursting with requirements and testing.
Brekke and Hanlon responded to their concerns with information and organization. They’d ask the teachers up front what they were studying that day. Informed that students were studying the rotation of the earth, Hanlon grabbed yardsticks and had the children lay them where the sun hit the garden. Twenty-five minutes later, their watering and weeding complete, students observed their yardsticks in the shadows and saw how the earth spins.
“We’ve learned to step back, not to over plan, and roll with it,” Brekke says. She also created jobs for the students like measurers, observers, and recorders. This organization eased the teachers’ worries. Moreover, it created strong connections between their gardening experiences and the New Jersey Core Curriculum, a set of well-defined content standards adopted in 2010. For in these standards, goals like understanding the interdependence of plants and animals were clear and necessary and hands-on gardening provided the perfect learning environment.
But the broader lessons gardening offered were just as rich. Brekke says, “School gardens are not where you learn about gardening.” The kids eat as they grow, leading to discussions on nutrition and food in the cafeteria and when summer comes, students donate their harvests to local food pantries and test their entrepreneurial talents. When hard work produced a bumper crop of organic leeks, owners of The Flaky Tart and Christine’s purchased the vegetables bringing funds back to the schools for more planting.
Funding these projects is a challenge. With budgets slashed, finding the support to promote this work requires creativity and lots of volunteer hours. Brekke and Hanlon estimate they’ve donated 3000 hours of their own time over the last few years. Yet, they consider themselves “one small step” towards bringing nature to children.
By sharing her experience at TEDx, Brekke wants listeners to catch the volunteer spirit and support school gardening or whatever happens to plant a seed for giving. She has always been a gardener, but never saw herself bringing the gift of nature to so many young people. “Not in a million years,” Brekke shares. A natural skill coupled with a desire to create a great experience for her young daughter has grown into something far-reaching.
Brekke watches young people team together to dig and plant and grow. Inspired by her high school art teacher, she relishes a life with creativity at the core. “Art is fraught with mistakes. It teaches you it’s ok.” When young people come together to grow something, there’s a certain amount of fear involved. Gardeners know, hard work does not necessarily bring fruits of labor. Brekke’s advice? “Don’t worry about it. Byproducts of the garden aren’t just vegetables. Everything is OK in the garden. ”