We’re Gardeners!

That’s what my four-year-old granddaughter says as we plant fall crops. I always tell folks who work with kids in gardens, it’s not about the plants. It’s about the kids.

Clear Boundaries. No Limits

Art is unique in requiring that hands and mind be in the same place. Distraction and anxiety are at the forefront of challenges for Des Moines Art Center Outreach students. Art class provides opportunities for quiet, focus and mindfulness.

Remember Evelyn Davis?

I started working in Des Moines in 1980 when I was fresh out of graduate school. Iowa State University Extension hired two urban 4-H professionals to fill one position. The Polk County Extension Director’s reaction was not warm. “There’s no such thing as a free puppy” was his frequent response to our requests.

Extension negotiated with Evelyn Davis for free rent in exchange for free programming with the families, kids and staff at Tiny Tots, and we moved into an old classroom on the second floor of the old Nash Irving Middle School, then the home of Evelyn Davis’ Tiny Tots Center. It was a cold day in February 1980, and Horticulture Specialist Mohammad Khan took us on a breakneck tour through the “hood” in his tiny Nissan. Things have improved a lot since then. Hofmaster and I learned our way around the city by being lost a good deal of the time.

Evelyn Davis’ work continues through the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. The Center houses Gateway to College and other programs for individuals and families that struggle to make ends meet, much less get ahead. Ms. Davis was a force of nature that impacted me personally as well as professionally.

I felt my baby’s first kick in the hallway at Tiny Tots waiting out a tornado warning. When I brought Kate to the center a month or so after she was born, Ms. Davis took my crying child from Charlene Owens’ arms and she quieted and settled against that warm caring heart immediately.

Ms. Davis helped our nutrition education programs connect with other organizations in the community, and let us hone our teaching skills on her staff and clients. Our joint efforts brought additional ISU staff to the community to work with parenting skills, nutrition education and advise on home improvement. We turned those three classrooms into a real inner city Extension Office that impacted the community for four years.

Now the site of the old Tiny Tots Center is Evelyn Davis Park where we held our first 4-H Portable Challenge Training. We brought Sam Tower in from Washington State University to spend a week with 12 professionals from Extension, Des Moines Schools and Employee and Family Resources. Those five days began the adventure movement in the Des Moines area. That fall we created a physical education class for kids who were at risk of dropping out of high school because they were failing PE. Soon we added afterschool and summer programs, and finally corporate training and work with adult students.

Ten years later we started the Adventure Learning Center with Living History Farms and Polk County Conservation, still the premier course in Iowa. And that’s where I learned to climb poles. But that’s another story!

Reflect on Service

I love service learning. It’s fun to help kids help people, in preschools, retirement communities, parks and gardens. Service learning is a respected way to get kids involved in their own educations.

But it’s not just about doing projects that help communities. For service learning to be valuable to young people as well as to the people they work with, we have to involve them in every step of every project–investigation, planning, action, reflection, demonstration and celebration.

After Global Youth Service Day last spring, Jessica Krough, Melissa Simmermaker of the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, and I talked about innovative ways to reflect on the state-wide day of service. We decided to experiment with Internet based radio to bring kids together from different GYSD projects around the state. About eight kids joined me on my show, “We’re Entrepreneurs–we can help.” Three of my Earth Heroes, and two students from the Hoover High School STARS program came to the studio. Two students from Lamoni Middle School and their facilitator joined us by Skype.

The Earth Heroes talked about the ongoing project they’re doing for Global Youth Service Day. Jessica visited the garden, and helped them read the Governor’s Proclamation. They were still clearing the garden, building their dragon, and planting vegetables.

As Kyla, Terrance, I work with the Earth Heroes at the Des Moines Botanical Center, we talk about

  • What happened?
  • So what?–How did you feel? What did you learn?
  • Now what?–What’s next? How can you use this experience in the future?

Here is some of their wisdom–

  • “When I’m special, I work really hard.”
  • “I didn’t know broccoli grew on a plant.”
  • “Digging is fun!”

The Earth Heroes walk down the hill from Boys and Girls Club at Carver Community School to the Botanical Center, and we form a circle. The kids know the FIRST thing we do is the “Name Wave.” The kids lead the Wave, starting with everyone yelling out their name as loud as they can. Then come “compliments and appreciations,” a chance for everyone to say thank you, and talk about what we like.

It’s September, and the 2nd through 5th graders are harvesting squash, pumpkins, watermelon, beans, tomatoes, okra, onions, potatoes, peppers and sunflower seeds to take home. Any gardener knows fall is time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, what got done, and what didn’t. What was lost? Where did the summer go?

So, they’re taking photos in the gardens, and next week we’ll create a map of each of the 20 ten-foot X 10-foot raised beds, making notes about what grew, crops that worked well together, and what the Heroes learned from experiments with okra, mulching, and fall planting.

Service learning is a powerful way for young people to find relevance in education, dream about the future, and change the world.

Find Refuge

I just applied to make my yard a certified wildlife habitat. I figured I might as well, since the deer have plucked my rosebuds one by one this summer and fall. Really, it’s a small step toward taking better care of the outdoors.

I started the process about three years ago when a group of friends and I removed an extensive pool, deck and pond structure and opened the space to nature. The huge Pin Oak that anchors the space has flourished since then, putting out new growth. I’ve added a perennial border of native plants and shrubs, allowed redbuds, oaks and maples to grow where they will. I’ve composted for a while, raised a bit of food and most recently installed a rain garden with the help of my friend Anne, the Iowa Garden Coach.

It’s really turned the back yard into a refuge, not just for the critters, but for me and my friends. I hope you’ll take some actions to make the world a little greener; here are some suggestions–

  • Take this “Outdoor Bill of Rights” Survey to help the Iowa Department of Natural Resources develop their agenda for getting children and youth opportunities to spend time outdoors.
  • Parents–Check out “Be Out There” at the National Wildlife Federation’s Web site, especially the resources for taking kids outside including Why kids need to play outside
  • The Next Step team was involved in creating this online resource for exploring Iowa–99 Parks Family Fun Guide
  • See what it would take to create a wildlife refuge at your school.

Plan with Post-Its

Once your group has decided on an activity to do, this process helps the group move toward making it happen. It could be done with the whole group, but it might be more effective in a committee or small group. It will help the girls who are in charge of the event to figure out the steps for making the activity a reality. Post-It Planning gives you a method for understanding the actions that are necessary to make the activity happen.

Start by writing the activity the group has chosen to do on a flip chart. Now the whole group writes questions and things that need to happen on sticky notes, one question or item per note so that they can be arranged later. Put these questions and other notes randomly on the flip chart. Give the group time to read the notes and make sure they have covered everything. Finally, the group arranges the notes in a logical order and divides them up among the group so everyone shares the responsibility for facilitating the activity. Finally, have the group decide on deadlines for the stages of action. This would be a good activity to use a Tack-E-Wall.

This planning technique is described in “Planning and Reflection” by Tom Akiva from HIGH/SCOPE, page 19.