Monday, January 15, 2024

Voices from the Field: Gardening in Afterschool

Source: Real Options for City Kids

By Sam Piha

Research tells us that young people’s connection to the outdoors and nature contributes to their healthy development. This connection can be promoted by involving youth in gardening. And afterschool programs are particularly well positioned to offer gardening activities. (Note: Our series of blog posts on gardening in afterschool are excerpts from a larger briefing paper entitled, Gardening in Afterschool Programs.) 

To learn more, we interviewed Natalie Gustin-Toland, Outdoor Education and Recreation Director, Real Options for City Kids.

Q: Can you briefly describe your organization and what you are doing concerning gardening with kids? 

Natalie Gustin-Toland
A: I work with the non-profit Real Options for City Kids which provides services to youth and their families in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, in San Francisco. We serve the community in a myriad of ways, one of which is through our Outdoor Education Program. Our program brings youth on outdoor adventures, builds skills and knowledge for youth and families, and provides weekly outdoor education, science and gardening classes to youth in afterschool programs.

Q: What are the benefits of a gardening program in afterschool for youth? 

A: There are so many benefits for youth and the general community related to gardening in afterschool. First off time in afterschool is plentiful, and we usually aren't striving to meet the rigorous academic standards like teachers are working towards during the day. We are able to provide time and space in a more flexible setting for youth to connect with natural spaces, such as gardens.

Students in afterschool are able to connect with plants and gardening informally, doing activities like digging in the dig zone, watering the plants, catching and studying bugs, sketching, and cooking with the food grown in the garden. These spaces are also frequently maintained by students after school, especially in communities who cannot afford garden educators during the day. Maintained spaces not only teach youth about how to care for nature, but also contribute to the beauty of the school overall. Caring for spaces on the schoolyard not only instills school pride, but also promotes leadership and ownership over spaces on school campuses. Another great component of gardening afterschool is the ways in which you can incorporate aspects of community engagement. This can look like growing crops which reflect cultural foods from the populations of the neighborhood. Families can be invited in to teach about crops, recipes or medicinal uses for plants grown which align with their cultural heritage. Students can also run leadership projects such as farmers markets or seasonal produce tastings for the community.

Q: What are the potential challenges?

A: Access to resources such as planting space, supplies and funds to buy supplies are all barriers to gardening in afterschool programs. Many schools have gardens, but not all are maintained, and some afterschool programs do not take place in spaces with access to nature. Finding staff with the skill set to lead classes like gardening and outdoor education can be tough as well. Lastly, finding a curriculum which fits the needs, and the skillset of the program can take some time to work out.

Source: Real Options for City Kids

Q: How should an organization prepare itself to incorporate gardening? 

A: Find the space you can garden in. You can think outside of the box if no space is available such as partnering with local community gardens, community centers or senior centers. Additionally, projects such as milk carton planting are fun as starter units for gardening if you want to try it out, that don't require an established garden. Finding a skilled teacher who has the knowledge base around caring for green spaces and growing food is also helpful. Finding a curriculum to align with is also helpful for programs that do not have capacity to design their own curriculum. Lastly, always thinking of longevity and maintenance for spaces, who cares for the garden over breaks in programming? How can you set these spaces up for success in the long run?

Q: Any resources that you would recommend? 

A: Life Lab has an awesome free gardening curriculum adapted from the late Education Outside program. Mystery Science also has fun units and curriculum to inspire. Science Action Club from the Academy of Science provides a great curriculum aligned with garden programs featuring units with topics such as bugs and birds. Additionally, you can use the apps Inaturalist or seek to engage in citizen science in your gardens! If you are looking to build existing staff knowledge around gardening practices, Garden for the Environment in San Francisco hosts workshops about gardening, however there are other organizations like this one if you are in another place, even checking out local garden stores for flyers or other community connection leads.

Source: Real Options for City Kids

Q: Are there any organizations to consider partnering with? (community gardens, parents, local businesses, etc.) To get donations? To learn more? 

A: I highly recommend finding a local garden partner. In Visitacion Valley we partner with the Visitacion Valley Greenway. With them we have access to experienced gardeners, supplies and gardening space for larger scale projects. We are also always on the hunt for grants which will help fund furthering our gardens, the Whole Kids grant for example is a great one, it also comes with resources to learn and support your program! 

Additionally, there can be lots of local businesses and organizations to support. Here in the SF area, we have reached out to local businesses such as Sloat Gardens, and Flora Grubbs Gardens for donations. Our chapter of the California Native Plant Society also has supported us with donations of plants, and a plan for where to plant them.

Q: Would you offer any additional tips for program leaders? 

A: Make sure you connect with community members in the spaces you plant at, and make sure the spaces aren't already spoken for, or that stakeholders don't already have plans for them is helpful if applicable (i.e. classroom teachers if at a school, PTA etc.). Additionally, gaining community investment, what would the community like to see in those spaces? Pollinator attracting plants? Trees or tall plants for shade? Food growth for cooking classes? This can help you shape your plans for your classes or clubs.

Source: Whole Kids Foundation


Natalie Gustin-Toland is a San Francisco Bay Area-based educator who has dedicated her career to serving in the Outdoor Education and Out of School Time fields. Over the past decade she has focused her work on program management, working in spaces such as summer programs, afterschool programs, outdoor education programs, and other community-based spaces. She is passionate about bringing a focus on equity and access to the table, and ensuring that these principles remain integral to all aspects of her work. Connecting communities to the outdoors in order to foster lifelong passion and agency in nature is the cornerstone of Natalie's purpose. 

Real Options for City Kids Since 1994, R.O.C.K. has served the needs of children in the community by providing structured programs that foster personal development within a safe, loving and supportive environment. With the help of our programs, children who might not otherwise have a reasonable chance to succeed are granted a level playing field.

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