By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The last two speakers of the day had a beef, actually two, with the city’s 24,000 public school students: their hands aren’t dirty enough, and they’re too plugged in.
“We want to help you inspire your students to enjoy the outdoors, to unplug,” Kate Venturini, interim director of the University of Rhode Island’s Extension Outreach Center, told a roomful of educators at the Feb. 16 “School Garden 101 Conference.”
Venturini and Robin Muksian-Schutt, operations director for the Providence Public School Department, noted that there are many kids in urban areas, such as Providence and Central Falls, who have never seen a running brook, a country river or rural stream. Many have never been on a nature hike, or let a horse eat from their palms.
“There are inner-city students who haven’t experienced this,” Muksian-Schutt told those in attendance at the end of the recent event to announce the “School Garden Initiative.” “We want to give kids a chance to get their hands dirty. We want to get them excited about nature, the outdoors, growing food and working in the soil.”
The pilot program, being launched by the Providence Public School Department and the Extension Outreach Center, aims to establish school gardens as learning environments, in an effort to grow student competency in science, technology, engineering and math.
The program also will include teacher training opportunities, technical guidance and garden-based lesson plans adhering to federal Next Generation Science Standards. The Extension Outreach Center is providing experience, seeds and seedlings.
The conference, held at URI’s downtown Providence campus, featured teachers, informal educators and school administrators. The daylong event was designed to help the city’s school department engage its students in garden-based learning. Attendees went home with lesson plans and best practices.
“The conference is designed to empower educators to meet their academic and wellness goals using outdoor classrooms,” said Vanessa Venturini, the Extension Outreach Center educator and conference coordinator. “We’ve brought together the relevant players in the local school garden scene to inspire educators to push the envelope with garden-based learning.”
The keynote speaker was Monique Bosch, co-founder of the Green Village Initiative. She shared stories about building school gardens across the city of Bridgeport, Conn., spoke about the challenges and joys of growing food with young people, and discussed the effect of the school garden movement on communities nationwide.
In an e-mail to ecoRI News the day after her talk, Bosch noted that a school gardening initiative for Providence and Rhode Island is both timely and needed.
“There is increasing awareness of the necessity to supply our school children with nutritious food, with plenty of research proving that children who are exposed to healthy food, especially by growing it, are more likely to eat healthy food now and in the future,” she wrote. “School gardens across the country are increasing in numbers, most notably in urban elementary schools. By providing a network for these gardens, schools will have the needed support to make best use of their ‘outdoor classrooms,’ with both students and teachers benefiting.”