This post is part eight in a monthly series called Living our Values: first-hand accounts written by Grow Pittsburgh staff members illustrating the centrality of our organizational values in guiding our daily work.

In May, we’re highlighting our value of equity, which dictates that we are “working alongside communities to build power and access for all”.

Read more from Learning Garden Educator, Emily Voelker, on how she sees this value carried out in Grow Pittsburgh’s work. Thanks for following along with us as we show you how we’re #LivingOurValues. Though the regular series has concluded, stay tuned for occasional new iterations of Living our Values in the future!

No Carrots—No Sticks!

Garden day! When students walk into their school garden, it’s time to dig, measure, plant, dance, draw, and snack. There’s no denying that garden time is a treat. But what happens when we think of a school garden as a treat, and nothing more? What happens when the opportunity to connect with nature, food, and the earth is only a reward, and one withheld from from struggling students?

In my work as a Learning Garden Educator with Grow Pittsburgh, I often run into the idea that time in the garden is a privilegesomething you earn with good behavior, and something you can lose as punishment. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, to use school gardens to their full potential, we need to break down this idea. A school garden needs to be open to all students, especially students who are struggling. The garden must be neither a carrot nor a stickwe all deserve the opportunity to connect with nature and with food.

Consider a scenario: I’m 12. I miss my bus, and I miss breakfast. I’m irritable and hungry, and it’s harder to focus in class. I’m restless and cooped up. Then, a classmate gets on my last nerve: now I’m yelling at them. Now I’m in trouble. I’ve lost the opportunity to go out to the gardenand I’m punished with more time inside.

Emily, pictured in a yellow beanie, maple tapping with students from Sunrise School. (Photo: Allegheny Intermediate Unit)

How does this solve the problem? In this scenario and many others, it’s often tempting to manage classroom infractions by removing students who act out. But what if 12-year-old me had gone outside? What if I took a deep breath of fresh air, got my hands dirty, and munched on some carrots?

Fresh air, sunlight, food, and even the act of touching soil—these are good for our brains. And they make the school garden a wonderful opportunity for kids to calm down and re-center themselves. It’s a chance for a fresh start.

I like to suggest that educators think of Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, which replaced detention with meditation. A school garden is like that meditation space: somewhere to go especially if a student is acting out. After all, if a student is being disruptive, there’s a good chance they have a need that’s not being met. That’s when students need an opportunity to calm down and reset more than ever. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to punish struggling students by removing the meditation time designed to support them, it’s often a mistake to eliminate garden time.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, let’s remember that garden time is still school time, and swap “garden class” with “math class.” Of course, sometimes it’s necessary for students to sit things out. But does a student get to skip math every time they put a toe out of line? Do we shuffle them out of reading every time they talk back?

Let’s also remember that whether it’s math, reading, or gardening, when students are in class, they are forming relationships with their school subjects. They’re creating ideas about whether they enjoy and appreciate mathbut also about whether they belong in math. All too often, students with less resources conclude that they don’t belong in a STEM field; that reading isn’t something for them; or that the outdoors just isn’t a space where they fit.

So the stakes are high. Food and nature are foundational parts of life; too important to be just a treat, and too vital to be withheld as a punishment. But if we tell kids that not all of them are allowed in the garden, we can’t ensure we’re educating them equitably. If that’s our go-to, we risk deepening the differences of privilege and prejudice that make school a much steeper climb for certain children than others.

Educators, parents, caregivers, and anyone else who has read this far: we’re all people who care about kids. If you have a school garden, you’ve got one more way to help children form joyful relationships with food, land, and nature. Let’s make sure they all get the chance.

Does this value resonate with you? Share this post on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, tag @growpittsburgh and #LivingOurValues and let us know what equity means to you!