Building Garden Support through Sprout Scouts

Students had just returned from summer vacation, and I welcomed my Sprout Scouts—the after school garden club—into the garden at Virginia Peterson Elementary School in Paso Robles, CA.  It was a hot and arid day. With every foot step dust and dry grass poofed into the air, and I felt like a kindred soul to the wilty leaves of the tomatoes and squashes.  Kids began racing into the garden at full speed as if it was a waterpark, their faces mystified by how much change their ½ acre garden had gone through over the summer.  Where my eyes saw chaotic overgrowth, their eyes saw a jungle to explore and a school year of gardening projects.

Sprout Scouts is a skills-based program developed by FoodCorps and Life Lab that provides FoodCorps service members the resources and activities they need to teach their students about cooking, gardening and nutrition education in a hands-on, fun and engaging way. Similar to Boy and Girl Scouts, Sprout Scouts is built on a series of adventures that develop new and complementary skills.  Through fun, hands-on activities that link to academic standards, Sprout Scouts clubs teach kids how to grow, prepare, and eat healthy food!  My service site, One Cool Earth, was supportive and eager to see Sprout Scouts implemented in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District (PRJUSD).

During my first week of service, I met with the two after school program directors of PRJUSD to introduce Sprout Scouts.  What I thought would be a hard pitch was actually an enthusiastic nod of approval.  After school program leaders are always looking for new activities and lessons to keep children engaged, and many had expressed interest in using the garden. We agreed that we wanted the club to reach every child enrolled in the afterschool programs at the three elementary schools I serve.  The solution: we set up a rotating system with staff training built in!  I co-teach one lesson per week with an afterschool program leader at a school, for instance Max.  Max then teaches the same weekly lesson to rotating groups of students throughout the week. This way, all 150 children enrolled get to experience Sprout Scouts while equipping staff with outdoor garden education skills to sustain the program.

One of the first Adventures we embarked on was called “Dead Heading” and was a lesson about seed saving.  As we cut down tall sunflower stalks and began picking out the seeds, the kids were curious to eat them.  “These taste different than the ones we get from the grocery store,” one kid said in a voice that insinuated “hey garden lady, I’m not sure if you know what you’re doing here.”  We talked about how sunflower seeds in the store are roasted and these are raw.  “Can we roast all the sunflower seeds next time?” asked one girl.  As my mind was racing to come up with a way to accommodate 30 children in the school kitchen, another child said, “Last year in my 2nd grade class we made our own solar ovens out of pizza boxes!  We could make those again but with you to roast the sunflower seeds!”  Is this not the most ingenious idea?  One of my favorite parts about teaching in the garden is there are so many sparks of wonder that I can empower children to explore.  The next week we did just that, applying engineering practices, math, and cooking into a lesson that resulted in warmed (not quite toasted) sunflower seeds that were still a hit.

A couple of months later the Sprout Scouts were going on a bug hunt in their garden, rolling logs over to see what insects and decomposers they could find and drawing their external structures in their Sprout Scouts journals.  We then planted a beneficial insect garden to create habitat for their favorite insects.  In Winter, we had a tea party with mint from our garden.  We learned about the medicinal properties of mint.  Did you know it helps calm your digestive system if you have a lot of gas?  Kids love that fact.  Students collected sticks and leaves to make centerpieces at their desks and made leaf print cards for their families while enjoying their tea.

The garden grew more beautiful, and I was able to adapt Sprout Scouts lessons to a lunch time recess garden club.  As children were released from lunch, I would watch a herd of 60 kids speed walking across the lawn to the garden.  I also started to get a lot of positive feedback. One girl told the principal, “Mrs. Crawford, Wednesday is my favorite day to come to school because it’s garden club.”

“My daughter is on the autism spectrum and never eats anything out of our home garden.  She came home from garden club yesterday and said ‘Papa, I ate an orange tomato today! I guess I like the orange ones in the school garden with my friends.’”

—Parent and Teacher at Virginia Peterson Elementary School

As support grew, the principal became the biggest advocate for the garden.  She wrote it into the time cards to have paraeducators help supervise garden club; she encouraged every classroom to adopt a garden bed and set up classroom experiments; and she advocated for the district to provide funding to pilot an integrated garden program by One Cool Earth at Virginia Peterson next year.

Just last week was open house night, and at one point there were over 150 kids and parents in the garden releasing ladybugs and exploring.  It was a surreal moment listening to children talk to their parents about edible flowers, six plant part tacos, and composting experiments.  Some even introduced me saying “This is Ms. Mariah.  She helped us start Sprout Scouts!”  I realized that Sprout Scouts was the entry point that led to a flourishing gardening program that every child has access to.

The Sprout Scouts program is made possible through the generous support of Presenting Sponsor Target and Founding Partner the Whole Kids Foundation.