I recently came across a great NPR story about the benefits of school gardens. When I lived in Wisconsin while getting my teaching degree, I student taught at an alternative high school that was just getting their school garden off the ground. Now it’s fully flourishing, and hearing from the teachers who are still at that school, many of the benefits NPR discusses were also present: students are more invested in their school, both as a building and a space for community, they are more engaged in many of their classes, they have an opportunity to be outside and away from stress or technology, and they are taking what they learn about growing food and nutrition home to their families and friends. The community gardens that are jointly created and maintained by students and staff are effective ways of empowering students while helping them make healthy choices. Museums like Strawberry Banke and the Enfield Shaker Museum offer public spaces for community members to participate in collaborative gardens. I love this idea, because it helps bring the museum into the community in a different way – it’s not necessarily about the history, for example, but it’s still fulfilling the museum’s mission. It’s community building but more equally focused on how the museum can listen to its community members and give them more say over how museum assets are used.
But what if we took it a step farther? Instead of only letting the community take charge of the gardens, which is already a great idea, what if we saved a portion of the garden to use in educational programs? Museums who are looking for a way to start after school or long-term programs can use the garden to help kids learn about a wide variety of projects like seed germination, or the historical uses for certain plants. The Buttonwoods Museum has created an herb garden that is maintained by both staff and the local Boy Scouts, and is used to teach school groups how early colonists in the Merrimack Valley learned (largely from Native Americans) how to use herbs as healing entities. If students are given the authority to take control of both what is planted in the garden and how it is taken care of, museums can add scaffolding through the expertise of its collection and staff. This is not to say that educational garden programs should be very structured and formal – on the contrary, the students should be given an informational foundation and then allowed to make their own meaning through tending the garden. Isn’t informal learning, that “making meaning,” something that museums are constantly striving for? Groups like Groundwork USA can partner with museums to help get garden programs up and running.
Do you know of museums creating these kinds of educational programs through long-term educational partnerships with students? How do the programs fit within their mission? We would love to hear more about this topic!