OKC Gardening Programs Teach Valuable Lessons - MetroFamily Magazine
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OKC Gardening Programs Teach Valuable Lessons

by Hannah Schmitt

Reading Time: 6 minutes 

On an unseasonably cool May day, kindergartners at Cleveland Elementary School gather around Larry Heyman at the school’s outdoor classroom. 

The garden is one of eight schoolyard gardens Heyman has started in the metro through his organization, Oklahoma City Harvest. He establishes outdoor classrooms at these schools, which are gardens where kids learn lessons that stretch far beyond the general science most people think of as connecting to gardening.

“There’s a common misconception that gardening is all about science,” he said. “That’s a myth I’m trying to bust. It is science, but there are also lessons in history, social studies, reading and even math.”

He’s obviously helping to bust that myth among Oklahoma City teachers. After harvesting lettuce for example, he will help teachers bring in a local chef to make a salad dressing that will teach kids about emulsification. At Cleveland Elementary, classrooms are raising ladybugs to release in the garden so they can help maintain the garden and eat bugs that would damage the produce.

In addition to running the nonprofit, Heyman is a teacher at Oklahoma City University. Before that, he was a teacher in Houston and ran a school garden on his campus there.

“I started that garden with just four beds,” he said of his Houston project. “Now, they have 18 beds and the students grow enough to sell at a farmers market. The kids who have stayed with it understand so much more about growing, soil, different varieties of plants. They’ve really learned a lot.”

After moving to Oklahoma City and realizing no one else was running gardens on school campuses, he got started offering his gardening experience to any school that wanted it. When Sarah Mossman, a parent of a Cleveland Elementary student, found out he could help, she jumped on the opportunity. 

“I walked past this space every day for a year to drop my son off at kindergarten last year,” she said of the small garden that now serves as the outdoor classroom. “I thought it was just really, really cute and a great place for them to be learning about gardening. The principal was supportive, so it just took off.”

She applied for and received a grant from Whole Foods that helped establish the garden. Heyman requires $3,500 from a school to get a four-bed garden complete with borders, soil, planting, irrigation and his ongoing support through teaching. The program has been so successful Whole Foods has continued to support them. For Earth Day, the grocer provided a composting bin and Mossman hopes to incorporate composting into the lunch room routine next year.

“It’s such a good lesson in nurturing,” Mossman said of the garden. “For kids, everything usually revolves around them. It shows them how to be delicate, caring, patient. It gives them a sense of accomplishment.”

On the south side of town, another schoolyard garden grows with a little help from the Regional Food Bank at Jubilee Partners, a school founded by Kristen Donovan. She has eight students enrolled right now, but she’s hoping to get the funding to have 20 students in August. Her after-school program serves 25 students. 

Walk through the classrooms and kitchen area of the small school and exit to an expansive area for kids to play. Right next to the basketball court and the outdoor toys you’d expect in any schoolyard sits a modest garden where students grow garlic, onions, tomatoes, basil and more. The Regional Food Bank’s Urban Harvest program helps provide seeds and gardening instruction for the students at Donovan’s school.

“I personally believe in the benefits of growing my own food,” Donovan said. “For my students, a lot of them don’t have much access to fresh produce. Inner city families are sometimes forced to shop at gas stations so this is a great opportunity to expose them to some really good food.”

In addition to teaching the students about art and science, Donovan said the garden serves as a great way to teach them the value of hard work. She recalled a student whose grandparents were farmers in Mexico.

“From just doing a little bit of work in this garden, he talked about how he understood what hard work his grandparents must do,” she said. “It’s profound in that it can give them such an appreciation for hard work.”

Even if your kids don’t attend a school with a gardening program, there are plenty of local opportunities to get them involved in horticulture, starting with a visit to a favorite local attraction: Myriad Botanical Gardens. This 17-acre outdoor oasis features a children’s garden with tons of hands-on learning opportunities. 

Ann Fleener is the director of education at Myriad Gardens. In addition to hosting nearly every elementary student in Oklahoma City Public Schools in their annual field trips to the garden, Fleener stays busy maintaining the children’s areas for kids to learn more about gardening. Fleener has her Ph.D. in horticulture and the research for her advanced degrees centered around the benefits of gardening for kids.

“It’s always fun to walk out into the children’s garden and see them go, ‘oh, that’s what a tomato plant looks like,’” she said. “I’m not ever surprised anymore when kids don’t know something. Very few of them know where their fruits and vegetables come from or how to grow them or how to grow anything.”

She also mentioned gardening is good for stress levels and blood pressure and can even improve the attention spans of kids.

“I’m always excited when I get to give kids one of those ‘ah ha’ moments,” she said. “It’s one of the most addictive things in education.”

Educational elements in the children’s garden are mixed in with fun experiences. Kids can roam the free children’s garden to see plenty of herbs and produce growing alongside fun playground pieces. Outdoor exhibits rotate with the seasons to match growing and harvesting patterns.

“It’s amazing,” she said of what gardening can do for students. “It improves leadership skills, it’s good for your health and kids are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables if they know where they’re coming from.”

If you want to give your kids even more of the “ah ha” moments Fleener’s talking about, another free local program sits just a few miles northeast at the National Women in Agriculture Association (NWIAA). Drive by any Saturday morning and you’ll see kids tending to one of about a dozen raised beds at N.E. 17th Street and N. Martin Luther King Avenue.

Braylon Burkhart is the garden director at the NWIAA, an organization that took the place of the YWCA last January. The building has been almost entirely overhauled since NWIAA moved in and one of the most prominent changes is the rows of brightly painted raised bed gardens outside. In addition to providing the same child care and enrichment services the YWCA used to provide, the NWIAA puts an emphasis on agriculture for Oklahoma City’s youth. 

“I absolutely love this job,” Burkhart beamed. “Whether they’re cleaning out in the garden, taking food home or watching the stuff grow, it’s so exciting to get to walk them through that. They’re learning a brand new skill set and there are so many educational elements to gardening.”

That new skill set goes a lot further than hobby gardening for some of the kids. NWIAA Executive Assistant Destiny Carson reports some high school students involved in the organization have been able to work part-time at the facility and hope to get scholarships in agriculture to assist in college expenses. 

Whether or not the kids sustain an interest in agriculture as they get older, Carson is thrilled with the lessons and skills they’re able to provide young children at the facility. Pointing out the turnip and mustard greens, broccoli, swiss chard, peppers and tomatoes growing in the raised beds, Carson said she’s seen countless kids be empowered by working in the garden.

They not only learn more about where their food comes from, she said, but the garden has reminded them of the power of hard work. Kids are rewarded for their hard work with some fun, though. Carson arranges for different animals to visit the center each week, she said, pointing out that her current pick, a cuddly bunny the kids named “Hopalong,” was a crowd favorite.

Even in the fun elements, kids are learning. Young girls get to tend a snow cone stand next to the garden in the summer months.

“It’s teaching them how to make something, how to manage money and it’s bringing the community a little closer to these beds so they can see what we’re doing here,” Carson said. “We want the whole community to get involved.”

The center has gardening opportunities for young girls and boys and all programs are free.

Whether you garden at home, at school or at a community garden, we hope this series has encouraged you to dig in and enjoy the season. Next month, we reveal some kid-friendly ways to use your fresh produce in the kitchen.

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