CitySprouts brings the outdoors into local elementary schools
“So pretty,” a kindergartener at the King School exclaims as her class troops onto the school’s rooftop garden on a warm April morning. She jumps up and down several times. “Finally, we get to go to the garden!”
CitySprouts Garden Coordinator Solomon Montagno asks which of the students has tried spinach. Most of them have, but only about half like eating it.
Today the kindergarteners will get the chance to plant spinach, Montagno tells the class, and then taste leaves from mature plants that have been growing in the garden’s hoop house. “Those of you who don’t like it, hopefully when we taste it fresh, it will change your mind,” he says.
The lesson is organized by CitySprouts, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that works with elementary schools districtwide to teach kids about gardening, healthy eating, and sustainability.
Jane Hirschi helped found CitySprouts in 2001 when her daughter was a young student in the district. When Hirschi came in to help in the classroom one day, she was surprised to learn that many of the kids were unfamiliar with common produce like tomatoes.
“So many of her peers, these foods were foreign to them. They hadn’t eaten them, they hadn’t touched them,” she says. “The teachers were really excited about how the kids were responding … Before I knew it, [I was] wheeling a cart around, bringing this garden and food experience to kids and watching the teachers use it.”
The program snowballed from there, according to Hirschi. It’s now CitySprouts’s mission to give students from all different socioeconomic backgrounds the chance to learn about and have access to healthy foods.
“Our teachers here really pushed us to think about the garden as a leveling of the playing field for their really diverse students, talking about how the garden is a place for kids who might have [emigrated] from an agrarian society and culture to feel more comfortable than any other place in the school, a place that invites children who have radically different experiences outside of school, like some of our Cambridge students do, to have some common experience that they can talk about, they can write about, they can build a vocabulary around,” Hirschi says.
CitySprouts works with kids ages 3 to 14 to supplement what they’re already learning in school. Rather than coming in with their own curriculum, CitySprouts eductators work with teachers to develop programming.
Gardening lines up well with many math and science topics, according to Hirschi, who calls the gardens “outdoor, edible learning classrooms.” Classes have met the math standard of measuring change over time by planting and tracking pea growth—an experiment that ended in a pea party celebration when it was time to harvest them. Teachers can explain topics like perimeters and volume in a way that’s “very real for kids,” she says.
“I am on a mission, maybe I would even say a crusade, to change how people think narrowly about science,” Hirschi says. “It’s not only beakers and labs and lab coats and biotech, it’s also the outdoors, it’s the natural world, and it’s food systems.”
Ninety-six percent of teachers said “that the garden helps them create meaningful hands-on learning opportunities for their students,” according to responses CitySprouts received from 200 teachers.
“It really gets the kids thinking about where their food comes from,” kindergarten teacher Jennifer Orr says as the children line up to plant spinach seedlings. “There’s a salad bar downstairs, and the kids just absolutely love it. And they do point out things, they’re like, ‘Oh, we planted that!’”
In a place as urban as Cambridge, agriculture can be a remote concept for kids.
“That’s one reason why we’ve been able to pitch these edible learning gardens in an urban place,” Hirschi says. “For a lot of these kids, this is the [only] chance they have to grow food at all. We have kids, fifth and sixth graders, every year, there are some new kids in the program who’ve never put their hands into the dirt before.”
CitySprouts has also proved a valuable tool for social-emotional learning, according to Hirschi, promoting perseverance, teamwork, and behavior management. The program has been especially valuable for students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, she says. Seventy-nine percent of the teachers CitySprouts surveyed said “that the garden experience makes curriculum more accessible to special education learners.”
CitySprouts also runs after-school and summer programs for middle schoolers, both of which are tuition-free.
It’s the first day since the fall that the kindergarteners have gotten to spend much time in the garden, but CitySprouts doesn’t halt during the winter months. CitySprouts educators and school teachers work on cooking, growing windowsill plants, and sorting seeds when it’s too cold to grow outdoors. Montagno says he’s made tea in a class that was studying Japan and made Vietnamese spring rolls when a class was learning about Vietnam.
As Montagno hands each child a spinach leaf, they exclaim observations.
“It smells like a leaf!” one says.
“It looks like a leaf!” another responds.
“It is a leaf!” a third pronounces.
A fourth child notices that the spinach has veins, and tells the rest of the class that the veins are for sucking up water.
The kindergarteners try the spinach all together. When Montagno asks who liked the spinach, all but one raise their hands.