Organization Uses Gardens As Classrooms

Nov 14, 2012

A non-profit organization in Sioux Falls is using gardens to help children learn and develop. Ground Works brings academic lessons to life as students use teaching gardens as an outside classroom. There are currently three teaching gardens in Sioux Falls where more than 12 hundred students interact.

Patience, loyalty, niceness, and respectfulness. Those are the things Isaiah says he learns while working in one of the teaching gardens that Ground Works has created. Isaiah’s favorite part of working in the garden is using the compost pile and seeing his garbage decompose.
“It’s better to reduce them, and reuse them…and recycle,” Isaiah says.
Those are also things Isaiah says he wants to practice as he grows older. Tim Olsen is the executive director of Ground Works. He describes the gardens as a place of exploration. Olsen says Ground Works coordinates directly with schools to help students excel academically, explore their surroundings, and become a better neighbor.
 “We use the garden as a medium or a platform to do that because it’s a safe place, it’s a neutral place. It doesn’t make any difference what your education, your academic background, your cultural background. Somehow in the garden, all that fades away and it becomes the great equalizer,” Olsen says.

There are currently three teaching gardens in Sioux Falls: the first one started four years ago at Lowell Elementary School, and then followed with Hayward Elementary School earlier this spring and the Children’s Home Society this fall. They are raised gardens, inside wood structures that are four feet wide, ten feet long, and 24 inches high. Olsen says the group helps create a curriculum that teachers can use for everyday lessons. South Dakota State Extension partners with Ground Works to create the curriculum. Chris Zdorovtsov is a community development field specialist with SDSU Extension.
“What it does is it takes education to a real practical thing that kids can see, it’s not necessarily on a worksheet. They can talk about diameter and area with actually conceptualizing this is my garden plot and this is how much space my vegetable is going to need. It makes it like real life in a way,” Zdorovtsov says.
Zdorovtsov says a garden is a place for everyone, and even her five-year-old daughter enjoys working in the family garden. Anne Land agrees. She says working in the garden is a time for family bonding and improves her three children’s behaviors. Land is trying to establish a teaching garden in Dell Rapids and Baltic because she believes the lessons that come from it have a big impact on peoples’ lives.
 “Knowing where our food comes from is really, really critical, especially in this day and age where we might get produce from other countries and we don’t even know where they are on the map, and having the responsibility of raising that produce. Just being able to share the produce with other people,” Land says.
Recently, Ground Works hosted a “Thanks for Giving” meal as a way to give back to those that have worked with students in the garden and those who have provided support for the gardens. Land’s two daughters, Mara and Elie, provided entertainment during the event playing the violin while her son, Ike, emceed. Also at the event was Cole Shawd. Shawd is the owner of Mixed, which is a restaurant in Sioux Falls that specializes in salads and healthy eating choices. Shawd is the first corporate sponsor of Ground Works and says he had been looking for a community organization that shared his passion for healthy lifestyles.

“When you eat healthier, you just tend to feel better, you stay more active. Part of Ground Works deal is keeping kids on the right track. Eating healthier, living a healthier lifestyle can also help psychologically with certain issues, it can help in the home. It just keeps a better balanced lifestyle,” Shawd says.
Shawd says while his restaurant isn’t necessarily organic, it uses produce that’s fresh and locally grown. The “Thanks for Giving” meal was the epitome of a fresh meal. Chefs from Avera and Sanford teamed up to create the menu which included roast turkey breast with a roasted red pepper and sweet corn relish, hydroponic greens, and roasted carrots.
“The carrots came straight out of the ground. They were probably in the ground 72 hours ago. That was really important to leave them in their natural state when we were looking at them today trying to decide what to do with them. All we did was trim the tops, they were beautiful,” Gilbertson says.
That’s John Gilbertson who is the executive chef at Sanford. He says the meal was autumn-themed and captured the mission of Ground Works by using fresh, locally produced food. Gilbertson says as a member of the American Culinary Federation and a nutrition expert, one of his goals is to help create more gardens and teach young people about food and where it comes from. That’s why he wanted to create the Ground Works meal.
“It’s so important to be part of this early on because the leverage that something like Ground Works can make a difference in and getting young people to look and even begin the thought process about where your food comes from it can change generations. That’s really what needs to happen to fight the health care epidemic and the obesity epidemic. All of those things really have to have a shift in paradigm and thought, and hopefully that comes from young people,” Gilbertson says.
After only one year, Ground Works has reached more than 1,200 students. Its goals for the upcoming years are to have three to five more gardens and reach 5,000 students by 2015. As the organization continues to grow, executive director Tim Olsen says diversifying its outreach is also important. Olsen says Ground Works brings teaching gardens where it’s asked, but it sees more opportunity at elementary schools.

“When you see these students, these kindergartners and first graders, whose eyes begin to come alive because they’re out, of all things, working in the soil, watching as a seed grows, measuring a watermelon as it grows every day and then looking forward to then together eating it as a class. It’s that simplicity that seems to touch people in some very wonderful and remarkable ways,” Olsen says.
Olsen says Ground Works hopes to adapt its curriculum to also benefit more middle schools and high schools in the future. For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I’m Cassie Bartlett.