Urban kids dig into science and get friendly with worms

Apple Seed program offers New York City students a hands-on way to grow

For children who live among the concrete of New York City, it can take time to get friendly with the creepy-crawly things in a patch of soil.

But a gardener's got to do what a gardener's got to do. So the elementary school students in an environmental and horticulture studies program called Apple Seed literally dug in this spring and overcame their dislike of worms. And on a sunny day recently, they got their reward - a chance to harvest their vegetables.

The kids are part of an effort that has already reached about 4,000 New York City public school students. Run through the Horticultural Society of New York in midtown Manhattan, a 100-year-old nonprofit organization that fosters appreciation of gardening, the program is growing on kids in Brooklyn, East Harlem, and Washington Heights.

Children more familiar with concrete than potting soil get their hands dirty as they study ecology, water, and life cycles, as well as the relationships between plants and animals. They plant seeds for vegetables and flowers, both in outdoor gardens and inside classrooms, and carefully cultivate the plants.

The emphasis is on hands-on, interdisciplinary learning. "We don't just get kids to remember correct answers," says Apple Seed director Pam Ito. "We want them to observe, think, and ask questions about the world around them."

As she bends to help her charges harvest peas in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Apple Seed teacher Monika Hannemann adds, "It's important that kids in urban areas learn about the natural world and see how accessible it is to them even in the city."

Such programs are typically a lot of fun for children. But they also can help forge a green path to better grades. In an educational gardening program in Griffin, Ga., for instance, middle-schoolers learn about math and science as they plot a garden and cultivate the vegetables. Teachers say they have found significant improvements in both math and science test scores. The students donate the harvest to a local food pantry - hence the name, the "Learn and Serve Garden," which is run by community groups and located at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In a big-city school system, Ms. Ito says, it's especially important to supplement and enhance the regular school curriculum. "Most kids in New York's public elementary schools receive only 40 minutes of science instruction a week because of pressure to prepare students for citywide standardized tests," she says. "But with Apple Seed, the kids get science in their classrooms every day."

Basic components of the fourth-grade citywide science test, such as identifying parts of a flower and the life cycles of plants and butterflies, are covered in the Apple Seed program. But instead of just reading about botany, students learn about it by bearing witness to the actual blossoms, scents and all.

Learning continues even after a harvest. Students might cook their pickings, making homemade jellies and pasta sauces, and then write about the process in their journals. They learn the cultural significance of different foods, for instance, how Native Americans used the "three sisters" - beans, corn, and squash. Teachers incorporate math by estimating crop yields or calculating the reproduction rate of worms that help fertilize plants.

Teachers particularly want kids to explore and experiment. To teach the concept of photosynthesis, for example, Ito puts elodea, a typical water plant, in water under a light. Students see oxygen bubbles created by the plant and begin to understand how fish can live underwater. And to demonstrate that plants also need to breathe, she might have them cover a leaf with Vaseline and observe the results. "We don't necessarily give them the answers, but we give them the ideas," Ito says.

Teaching inner-city kids to open their senses to nature can be a challenge. Most have little experience with soil and plants in a city dominated by tall buildings. Already trained in a certain style of learning, students at the start of the program tend to be hesitant to get dirty, and to be horrified by earthworms.

"Some were so grossed out they had to leave the room," Ms. Hannemann recalls. "It took the kids a long time to get used to touching them."

Apple Seed makes good use of New York's precious green space. Teachers collaborate with places like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and organize nature walks in Central Park and Fort Tryon.

But after initial hesitancy, the children revel in their horticultural creations. During the course of the school year, students raise a cornucopia of vegetables: corn, beets, squash, radishes, Chinese cabbage, peas, and garlic. They weed and mulch vegetable plots themselves throughout the school year, even in winter, when "cold frames" are built into the ground to protect plants.

Nina Terune, one of Hannemann's students, exults: "I know things about gardening that my mom doesn't know - and she knows a lot about gardening!" Among her favorite garden activities, Nina lists "weeding and eating big peas."

Rahim Fowler Sr. is a chaperone for his son's class on their weekly outing to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. When asked about Apple Seed, Fowler beams as brightly as the morning sun.

"It's a wonderful way to teach about the earth," he says. "We take food for granted, but the kids are learning about the value of nature. This is an opportunity not normally found in the city."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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