More Than Half Of New York City's Public Schools Now Have Gardens—And Kids Are Loving It

Green schoolyards are valuable resources and offer a safe meditative space for staff and students.

September 28, 2017
NYC school garden
Photograph courtesy of Grow to Learn Staff

It’s not often that kids argue over peppers. But that’s what happened recently when Nava Greenfield and her students at P.36K @ Flatbush Town Center in Flatbush, Brooklyn were out in their school garden recently. The argument? Who could bring the newly harvested vegetables home to show their parents.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

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Greenfield says that moment was special, especially at a high school that serves students with special needs. “They were so proud of themselves, and when they feel proud of themselves, that’s golden,” she says. “It’s moments like these that make the garden worth while.”

Related: 6 Lessons For Teaching Kids Gardening

She and her students were harvesting vegetables from raised beds and containers in the schoolyard. Three years ago, the school started with one growing container. Since then, they’ve expanded to a dedicated outdoor space and additional space inside to cultivate tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, mint, collard greens and herbs. They even grow grapes and strawberries, too.

Growing indoor herbs like these is a great way to introduce kids to gardening:

“We’re enthusiastic about helping our kids learn in different ways,” bringing in functional, multi-sensory, hands-on activities, says Laura Pulkoski, who oversees the garden along with Greenfield. “When they see a seed grow into a seedling and then into a flower or vegetable, it’s a big deal,” she says.

school garden
Photograph courtesy of Laura Pulkoski

 

A Garden Grows in the City

From container gardens to bottle planters in classrooms, gardens have taken off in New York City. Now, more than half of the city’s public school buildings have a school garden. Schools are using these green spaces not only as teaching tools and hands-on laboratories for math and science, they’ve also become arenas for social and emotional growth, particularly for students who may not do well in the traditional classroom environment, as well as serving as a respite for teachers and administrators.

Related: 4 Really Cool Things Schools Around The World Do To Help Students Thrive

School gardens aren’t new to the Big Apple. However, they were often the project of one interested parent or teacher and hard to sustain. When Rasheed Hislop first joined the Parks Department in 2007, the school gardens program had languished. Yet, there was a growing interest in food systems and gardening in the city and, under Mayor Bloomberg, principals were more empowered, opening the door for schools, parents and teachers to activate garden spaces in their school. Hislop helped restart the school gardens program. Despite zero marketing, 100 school gardens registered over the first two years, says Hislop, now the School Gardens Outreach Coordinator with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s GreenThumb Program. (Want to create a school garden at your local school? Here’s how to get started.)

To help meet the growing demand, the Parks Department, local nonprofit GrowNYC, and The Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC joined forces to create Grow to Learn, a citywide school gardens initiative that works across the five boroughs to establish sustainable school gardens in public schools.

 

school hydroponic garden
Photograph courtesy of Arielle Hartman

Now there are roughly 700 gardens across schools in New York City. While many schools use traditional raised beds, others have to be more inventive with the limited space. “I’ve seen teachers grow plants in soda bottles and old shoes or in projector carts with fluorescent lights,” says Arielle Hartman, School Gardens Coordinator with GrowNYC.

“Historically, one of the challenges for successful and sustainable school garden models has been a lack of coordination,” says Julie Walsh, Assistant Director at GrowNYC. “If you try to do this in a vacuum, you run into bureaucratic impediments,” like building momentum and support for a garden only to find out that the garden beds will be covered by scaffolding all summer, deprived of sunlight. “By partnering with the agencies like the Parks Department and the Department of Education, we’re able to help schools run the gauntlet with these agencies so they don’t run into obstacles.”

Related: How To Start A Community Garden

The Grow to Learn program helps schools create a vision and plan for a sustainable garden. Registered schools can attend free workshops that cover everything from how to build a garden bed to how to connect the garden to your math curriculum. Schools are also eligible to receive free garden materials, access to an extensive online resource library and garden network, and apply for $500 to $2,000 in mini-grant funding to start or expand a school garden.

What’s more, Grow to Learn staff offers teachers and garden coordinators moral support. “It’s almost like emotional support, helping people become confident in their ability to do this because they often come to this as a novice without prior gardening experience,” says Hislop. “Or, they’re really struggling with their administration and trying to convince their boss to buy into something that’s not a priority.”

school garden
Photograph courtesy of Arielle Hartman

More Than Growing Flowers and Vegetables

The benefits of school gardens extends beyond learning where food comes from. “In addition to learning about actual hard science like ecology and agriculture, there’s a really important lesson in how we treat each other, the value of teamwork, and how we interact in such a space and how that can be a reflection for what’s possible in the world,” says Hislop. (Read more about the amazing ways gardening is good for kids.)

“Behavioral issues are dramatically reduced when kids are exposed to nature and to this kind of real sensory and experimental learning that the natural world offers,” especially when living in an urban environment, says Walsh. Recent research presented at the 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition noted that green schoolyards, including vegetable and native gardens, provides children, families and the community with a healthy environment for play and relaxation.

Related: These Schools Sent Kids To Meditation Instead Of Detention—Here’s What Happened

That’s the case at P.36K @ Flatbush Town Center. While the main goal is to teach nutrition and health, it’s become an oasis too. When students found out that a classmate passed away, they asked to go outside. “They saw the garden as a calm space. They were able to open up when they were outside,” says Greenfield, which inspired the transformation of a portion of the garden to a meditative space. Students also have an opportunity to mentor younger children who visit the garden.

Related: How Yoga And Meditation Are Transforming Underserved Schools

As for the future of school gardens? It’s limited only by the creativity of the teachers, parents, administrators, and students. Pulkoski and Greenfield want like to host a farmers market with the students in the future, even if it’s just for the students and their families and teachers. “The success of the programs is really due to the schools themselves,” says Hislop. “We are in a position to provide the foundational support and, from there, they take off.”