Volunteering and Youth Education Helps Nature Help Us
Imagine a place where hands-on experience with nature is a standard part of every child’s education. It’s a place where children learn about soil health and the pollination cycle by putting their fingers in the dirt and observing bees and other insects, where they have the chance to eat food they helped to grow in that same dirt. They are supported in these activities not just by their families and teachers but a broader network of neighbors and local business people who come together to help nature flourish in their community.
This is a real place, and it’s not a rural farming town or green utopian village—it’s an elementary school in the middle of Washington, DC. For the last three years, students at the DC Bilingual School have benefited from an 8,000-square-foot garden that supports science education, community engagement and outdoor exploration of all kinds.
Gardens such as this one are essential, and not just for students. Ensuring a sustainable future for our planet requires a continuous effort to conserve the ecosystems that sustain us. And it is in places like this garden where—forgive the pun—we plant the seeds of future conservation efforts.
We all know that people depend on nature—for food, water, clean air and much more. For those of us who live in urban areas, though, nature can feel removed from our daily lives and our relationship with nature can become an abstraction, or be forgotten entirely. With global populations rapidly moving into cities, we need work now to ensure all communities, especially in those in urban areas, foster relationships with the environments that sustain them.
At The Nature Conservancy, we’re helping to forge these relationships through our Youth and Volunteer programs. By educating, engaging and growing a more diverse group of conservationists and supporters, we can ensure a future where communities, including those in cities, will value nature and support its conservation. In addition, by supporting volunteer efforts, we will provide our members and supporters with opportunities to benefit nature in ways that sustain their respective communities, as well their own health through social engagement and physical activity in the outdoors.
The DC Bilingual school garden is representative of both these facets. Supported by a grant from the Conservancy’s Nature Works Everywhere program, the garden features edible plants, pollinator habitat, a koi pond and outdoor playing areas. These elements are key features in the school’s science curricula, says Lola Bloom, operations manager and wellness coordinator at DC Bilingual.
In addition to studying pollination and soil, students learn about what trees do for the environment and how food is grown and prepared. In fact, food from the garden is featured in the cafeteria salad bar at regular intervals. “We grow things like strawberries and blackberries, and they eat something that’s so familiar to them—but when they grow it from the garden and eat it, it’s mind-blowing,” Bloom says.
Being in the garden is also an opportunity to increase awareness of the natural world more generally. “It can feel like we aren’t in nature because our area has these busy roads and the Metro station and a freight train,” Blooms says, “but there are also deer, foxes and raccoons, and a possum that frequents our garden. It gets us to talk more about nature and pay attention to hawks and other species they wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for the garden.”
The garden plays a central role in the school’s engagement with volunteers and other members of the broader community as well. Community work days in the garden bring teachers, families and members of the broader community together to help improve and maintain the garden. The garden also brings volunteers from nearby universities and businesses, including Lowes, which helps to fund the garden and other Conservancy youth engagement programs.
Some teachers also use the garden as a more welcoming space to meet with families, and potluck dinners bring the whole neighborhood together. With the demographics of the school and the broader neighborhood currently in flux, “there’s a lot of culture-building that needs to happen,” Bloom says. “The garden has been a good place for that, as people from all different backgrounds can connect through food or building things. Ownership can feel more authentic in a garden than in other areas.”
That ownership is good for the school, good for the community, and good for the planet, too. When community members participate in programs like the compost cooperative and take home and eat food they helped grow, they form a stronger awareness of and bond with the natural world—and hopefully a sense of its importance in their lives.
That’s important for the students, too, Bloom says. Growing up in the city, many of the students at DC Bilingual “don’t have the ability to go outside and dig, to pour water on plants and dirt,” she says. “That’s a big part of our garden—without that space, a lot of these kids might go home and stay inside, because they don’t have safe spaces to be outside or engage in this kind of exploration—and that connects to developing an empathy for the environment.”
One of our goals at the Conservancy is to help more people of all ages develop such empathy and affinity for the natural world. Our scientific research shows that we can achieve a future where people and nature thrive, but it will take some effort. With everything that nature gives to our communities, it’s only fair that we give a little something back.
Find more information about school gardens The Nature Conservancy works with around the United States, including W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia, where students recently constructed a rain garden.
Pascal Mittermaier is the Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Cities program, where he works to build resilient, livable, flourishing cities around the world. He tweets at @pascalmitter and his writing is archived at https://global.nature.org/experts/pascal-mittermaier.