In a raised garden bed outside Pioneer Elementary, dark rich soil sits, seemingly undisturbed. A couple weeks ago, elementary students carefully separated the cloves in a head of garlic, poked each clove down into the fertile soil, and studiously smoothed the dirt over at the school’s new learning garden.
The cloves of garlic hidden in the raised bed’s rich soil will grow slowly throughout the fall and winter, taking up nutrients and building strong root systems as they send green shoots skyward. Students will weed the beds patiently, taking their outdoor learning back into the classroom to apply it to subjects like science and language arts. But even when the green shoots of the garlic appear above ground, the garlic is far from ready. It will grow over the spring and summer, tended by the students, who must wait to see if their work pays off. It won’t be until early fall next year that the students lift the soil to reap their reward, to see a bounty of huge garlic bulbs where just a few small cloves began.
The learning garden is made possible by the hard work of the Pioneer PTA and the determination of the Freedom Farmers, a group of Olympia High School students who are currently helping to build the learning garden at the neighboring school. Blue Peetz teaches the Freedom Farmers. The seeds of sustainable farming and food systems were sown deeply in him long ago, when he attended The Evergreen State College and studied the interaction of history, science and agriculture. Now, Blue is one of two teachers with the Freedom Farmers who passes on their knowledge to the next generation.
In 2012, Blue helped start the Freedom Farmers, an educational program within the Olympia School District that blends outdoor education and practical experience with academic learning in subjects like science and history. Students spend about half the week at a 15-acre, district owned farm near Centennial Elementary, and the other half the week in the classroom. The Freedom Farmers program engages students in learning and helps them be involved with the community. The program particularly appeals to students that haven’t been engaged in the traditional classroom, and may need some help catching up.
Blue credits his time at Evergreen to his success, both in starting the Freedom Farmers program and with working with students on a daily basis. “It changed my life,” he says. “It’s why I do what I do today, because of Evergreen.” Not only did Blue learn about food systems and their impact with the community, he saw other models of learning which inspired him to look critically at traditional learning models and how they serve students.
“We have a lot of kinesthetic learners,” says Blue. Kinesthetic learners absorb knowledge best by experiencing learning in a hands-on way. These students thrive when they feel a sense of purpose from the learning they are doing, and being directly involved with something tangible, like building Pioneer’s garden, reinforces that learning.
The program also helps students get directly involved with the food they eat every day. The Freedom Farmers produce nearly 15,000 pounds of food every year. Then the students work with nutrition services to process, chop, blanch, freeze and prepare it so that it can be added to the school lunches for all 18 schools in the Olympia School District throughout the year.
Helping set up the learning garden at Pioneer Elementary has given the Freedom Farmers a way to break up the long academic day. They have already installed six raised beds. Now, they are working on building a seat wall where students can sit while teachers or volunteers give lessons. Behind the bench, there are plans for perennial berries.
Students at Pioneer have already used two of the raised beds to plant the garlic and some potatoes which will grow over the winter. The other beds have been seeded with cover crops. The cover crops will keep weeds at bay, and when they are turned over into the soil in the spring, they will provide organic matter and nutrients to the spring plantings.
By helping to build the learning garden at Pioneer Elementary, the Freedom Farmers of Olympia High School are helping pass on outdoor education opportunities to the youngsters that follow, giving more students a way to find purpose in their learning. “When students feel like they are important, they show up,” says Blue.
The commitment to outdoor education and education as a whole is a continuing project. With every season, new seeds of learning must be planted in the young minds that enroll each year. Blue wants to remind our community about the importance of funding public education and finding ways to reach kids, either through farming and outdoor education or something else, like art, construction, or involvement with local government. Much like the garlic in the beds at Pioneer, public education needs support that continues over time, investments that help students grow, flourish, and find subjects that inspire and engage them. Like the cloves of garlic in the Pioneer learning garden, the students of the Olympia School district, from elementary to high school, are thriving with their outdoor education.