Urban kids dig into science and get friendly with worms

Christian Science Monitor
July 18, 2000
Apple Seed program offers New York City students a hands-on way to grow

For children who live among the concrete of New York City, it can take time to get friendly with the creepy-crawly things in a patch of soil.

But a gardener’s got to do what a gardener’s got to do. So the elementary school students in an environmental and horticulture studies program called Apple Seed literally dug in this spring and overcame their dislike of worms. And on a sunny day recently, they got their reward – a chance to harvest their vegetables.

The kids are part of an effort that has already reached about 4,000 New York City public school students. Run through the Horticultural Society of New York in midtown Manhattan, a 100-year-old nonprofit organization that fosters appreciation of gardening, the program is growing on kids in Brooklyn, East Harlem, and Washington Heights.


Children more familiar with concrete than potting soil get their hands dirty as they study ecology, water, and life cycles, as well as the relationships between plants and animals. They plant seeds for vegetables and flowers, both in outdoor gardens and inside classrooms, and carefully cultivate the plants.

The emphasis is on hands-on, interdisciplinary learning. “We don’t just get kids to remember correct answers,” says Apple Seed director Pam Ito. “We want them to observe, think, and ask questions about the world around them.”

As she bends to help her charges harvest peas in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Apple Seed teacher Monika Hannemann adds, “It’s important that kids in urban areas learn about the natural world and see how accessible it is to them even in the city.”

Such programs are typically a lot of fun for children. But they also can help forge a green path to better grades. In an educational gardening program in Griffin, Ga., for instance, middle-schoolers learn about math and science as they plot a garden and cultivate the vegetables. Teachers say they have found significant improvements in both math and science test scores. The students donate the harvest to a local food pantry – hence the name, the “Learn and Serve Garden,” which is run by community groups and located at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In a big-city school system, Ms. Ito says, it’s especially important to supplement and enhance the regular school curriculum. “Most kids in New York’s public elementary schools receive only 40 minutes of science instruction a week because of pressure to prepare students for citywide standardized tests,” she says. “But with Apple Seed, the kids get science in their classrooms every day.”

Basic components of the fourth-grade citywide science test, such as identifying parts of a flower and the life cycles of plants and butterflies, are covered in the Apple Seed program. But instead of just reading about botany, students learn about it by bearing witness to the actual blossoms, scents and all.



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