“Everybody freeze! Where are you, right now?”
“On Meridian Street.”
“At a picnic table!”
“On planet Earth!”
“In the UNIVERSE!”
These are a few of the responses I received from elementary and middle school students participating in L-BEAD’s Kids Grow Green program at South Circle Farm this past Summer. In that moment, during the first session in early June, we were frozen in time with our senses and curiosities peaked. Awareness of place had been incited. Instantaneously, the group realized the ground we were standing on, the constructs of the city, the air we were breathing, and the expansive and humbling feeling of floating on a small blue ball somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. It was a lesson in place consciousness; of becoming more aware of the living places humans inhabit and create.
Children from the Concord Neighborhood Center returned to the farm once weekly for two-hour sessions led by L-BEAD educators over the following five weeks. The Kids helped plant, care for, harvest, and make food from their Salsa, Pizza, 3 Sisters, Rainbow and Root Gardens. Along with tending gardens, they listened to stories and cultural legends about food, participated in scavenger hunts and blindfolded trust walks, and created nature-inspired art.
Each week the students were challenged to look more deeply, think more critically, and explore the lessons offered by the particular place that is South Circle Farm. Questions infused throughout theKids Grow Green curriculum included, “Who lives here?” “How did this place develop to be as it is today?” “Why and for who is this place important?” and “How can we care for and share this place?” The primary goal of the program, now finishing its third year, is to provoke perceptions and guide learners through the process of inquiry to gain a better understanding of the biological, social, ideological, and political dimensions of place.
Wait a minute. Isn’t Kids Grow Green just a typical summer gardening program?
Why would inquiry into the dimensions of place be a central part of the program? Curricula designed by L-BEAD are inspired by the contributions of a diverse collection of epistemologists, researchers, and environmental educators. The most recent influence on L-BEAD’s curriculum developments have been the research and writings of David Greenwood (formerly Gruenewald), Professor of Environmental Education at Lakehead University in Canada. In his 2013 article, A Critical Theory of Place-Conscious Education, Greenwood stated, “Place-study is vital for understanding how human and other species adapt to ecological and cultural changes on a planet in flux.” Providing opportunities for children and adults to critically look at the way we develop skills of adaptation and resiliency in this world of diminishing resources is indeed vital! Learning to garden is a gateway to self-reliance. Learning to critically study all dimensions of a place is a gateway to contributing both locally as an informed community member and globally as an Earth citizen.
Fall is here and the Kids are preparing for the end of season Harvest Celebration at South Circle Farm. And while the harvest is being gathered, I am looking back with a few critical questions of my own. What did the children gain from our program this year? Are they beginning to learn adaptation and resiliency skills needed to survive in this ever-changing present and the unpredictable future? Are these skills something we can measure? Most importantly, how can we capture what is being learned without taking away from the sensuous, perceptual experience of actively engaging with the physical world?
These questions have been fueling my exploration into literature regarding environmental education (EE) program evaluation, as well as, participatory action research (PAR) as a means for community development. In my search, I uncovered a newly emerging research method that combines three essential components of L-BEAD programs: environment, children, and participation. In Children as Active Researchers: The Potential of Environmental Education Research Involving Children (2013), Hacking et al. presented examples of EE programs in England and Australia that supported children as active researchers. The authors of the article made a clear case for shifting focus from children as the objects or subjects of research in EE programs, to one that addresses the rights and expertise of children as collaborators and contributing members of society. These programs empowered young people by recognizing them as stakeholders of the environment and encouraged their role as astute observers, researchers, and change-makers. Hacking et. al also provide guidance in this article for those wishing to develop research programs involving children.
Following this lead, L-BEAD can move forward by focusing more specifically on introducing PAR methods to children as part of its continuing place-conscious and place-based education practices. Participants, like the Kids in the Kids Grow Green program, will have opportunities to design and implement research objectives relevant to where they live. By collecting, analyzing and presenting their findings, children as participatory researchers will become more engaged in their place of study. The records kept of their learned experience, as quantitative or qualitative data, can be presented at neighborhood gatherings or planning meetings. This framework will encourage learners to create “benchmarks” for accountability and success. The results, presented by the participatory researchers, will serve to empower and demonstrate the program’s effectiveness. As participants become empowered and more engaged in their community, they will become advocates and leaders for community change. The cyclical growth and return of learners-as-leaders, therefore, must be anticipated and embedded into the structure of the program.
Through this exploration to find mindful and respectful ways to evaluate the effectiveness of Land-Based Education & Agritour Design programs, I am reminded of a concept I picked up in my Montessori training…Within structure is freedom. The task of developing structures for learners to freely analyze their place of study is both simple and complex. As facilitators bridging learners to the lessons of the land, we first open ourselves to teachable moments by picking up keys learners drop which indicate subjects of interest. Second, we gather up the keys and use them to design the focus and framework for research. Third, we support learners’ inquiry by sharing knowledge, stories, actions, and traditions gifted from the contributions of previous explorers. And finally, we offer participants opportunities to create and record new formulas, meanings, stories, and traditions gained through their own place-based, experiential interactions. Through this process, facilitators and participants collectively build awareness of the relationships embedded in the places we inhabit and can then work to reinhabit these places with greater cultural and ecological sensitivity and responsibility.
“How are you currently shaping the future?”
For further reading about involving children as researchers, check out Listening to Children: Perceptions of Nature presenting a study based at the Mountain School in the North Cascade Mountains.
Hacking, E., Cutter-Mackenzie, A. and Barratt, R. (2013). Children as Active Researchers: The Potential of Environmental Education Research Involving Children. International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education, pgs. 438-458. New York, NY: Routledge.
Greenwood, D. (2013). A Critical Theory of Place-Conscious Education. International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education, pgs. 93-100. New York, NY: Routledge.