Tulsa’s Global Gardens Teaches Kids Gardening and Much More

global gardensI recently interviewed Ayschia Saiymeh, Community Outreach Director & Educator, to find out how Global Gardens, a youth gardening program in Tulsa, Okla., works. My article appears in the spring 2013 issue of Gardeners On the Go!, and here’s the full text of the interview:

radishMaria Woodie (MW): How and when did Global Gardens start?
Ayschia Saiymeh (AS): Global Gardens started in 2007 at Eugene Field Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The program was the idea of Founder & Executive Director, Heather Oakley, based on her experience working in both alternate education settings and traditional classrooms. After moving back to Tulsa from New York City, where she finished her masters degrees in urban science education and international development/peace education, Heather wanted to put her idea into motion. Heather began developing a plan for Global Gardens and pitched it to the administration, teachers and students at Eugene Field. With their full support, and particularly the students motivation and excitement, Heather and the students began setting down roots for what Global Gardens has grown into today! (Read more about Heather.)

MW: What is the story behind your name?
AS: For us the garden is so much more than a place for science enrichment or food growth. While those things are significantly important and amazing byproducts of our program, Global Gardens is really about opening people up to possibility and potential—it’s about empowering students and communities alike. Through the context of the garden we can connect with what is going on not only inside of ourselves but also in the bigger world. Additionally we use the garden as a way to foster peace. In our own Global Gardens community we infuse peace education and the use of a peace table for conflict resolution. The garden and particularly its bounty gives us the opportunity to explore the cultures represented in our community and elsewhere to recognize similarities and gain understanding and appreciation for those that are different.

kalechipsMW: How have you grown and branched out since then?
AS: We have taken a slow and thoughtful approach to growth. As of now we are working in two elementary schools providing during-school, after-school and summer programs; and with one middle school providing after-school and summer programs. This is also our first year piloting two on-site community garden projects, which are extensions of our student gardens but they focus on families working together and growing more food. Currently we are serving 1,300 students and their families. Our growth is focused on working with low-income communities and Title I schools.

MW: What does Global Gardens do?
AS: We work with low-income communities to create on-site school and community gardens. Our inquiry-based approach is student and community led. Each classroom has their own garden, and each after-school student has the opportunity to earn his or her own garden.

During school our Global Gardens teachers go into the classrooms to facilitate our program, meeting with each class weekly to develop their garden and use it to grow food, explore hands-on the state standards for science curriculum, and be creative! Each classroom has a theme for their garden, which is decided collectively by the class. Themes have ranged from taco gardens to folk-tale gardens to the International Peace Garden and more! The students also use the garden as a catalysts for art projects, building projects (they’ve built raised beds, cob ovens and more), and literacy projects—last year the folk-tale garden class all authored and illustrated their own folk tales!

The after-school program is focused more on leadership and personal student development. Students meet daily with our after-school educators to earn their gardens, plant, cook, create art in the garden and much more! Again, it’s a child-centered program. Along with earning their gardens, we allow our students’ interests to determine our bigger projects. Projects have included creating and participating in farmers’ markets, developing fundraisers and other community events like Bike for a Life—a city-wide bike ride that’s in its third year. It has raised more than $17,000. Our students choose to give a portion to another charity that they determine based on research and discussion.

MW: How old are the children in these programs? Any adult programs?
AS: Our program serves 1,300 students, pre-k through 7th grade. Around 50 adults are actively involved through our two on-site community gardens.

MW: What types of plants do you grow?
AS: Anything our students and families want to grow—we leave that up to them. We talk about seasons and weather zones and encourage them to plant things that will be successful, but beyond that we encourage them to try new things and to experiment! Some favorites in our gardens are marigolds, sunflowers, zinnias, Swiss chard, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, spinach, cucumbers, watermelons and arugula. We also recently have started two small orchards with pear, apple and fig trees!

MW: What do you do with your harvest?
AS: It’s probably easy to have guess by now—we let the students decide! With the class gardens we cook or make something collectively. We’ve harvested radishes to make radish chips and also radish art. We’ve also made plenty of soups, salads, pizza, salsas, smoothies and tacos. After-school students are generally taking it home or eating it right off the plant. Since we are an organic garden, this is never a problem! With our community garden harvest we will either make a meal together or families will take their harvest home.

MW: In what ways does growing and maintaining a garden help students and children?
AS: The list is really endless. It builds their confidence, gives them a hands-on experience with what they learn in the classroom, promotes healthy eating and exercise, develops a love and appreciation for the natural world and stewardship of it. It helps to create focus, foster team work and create an appreciation for hard work and goal setting. It teaches patience and appreciation for delayed gratification.

MW: As a non-profit, how is the program sustained?
AS: We are fortunate to have generous and faithful supporters who are the backbone of our organization! This includes foundations, individuals, corporations and in-kind donors who all make what we do possible! We also have a great crew of volunteers who support our after-school educators, pick up compost and more.

MW: What are you looking forward to this spring?
AS: We are looking forward to more community gardeners joining us. We are also excited for the third annual Bike for a Life event that is put on by our middle-school students and scheduled for April 13. This year the chosen cause is our local Alzheimer’s Association. We also begin regular weekend work days in the spring that are productive and lots of fun. There is also a spring cob-oven pizza party in the works that will be sure to be a hit!

MW: Is there anything else you would love our readers to know about your gardens?
AS: Our gardens are really special. They aren’t manicured and perfect but they are transforming the lives of those that we work with (and my own!), and I know what a gift it is to see that! From single moms being inspired to go back to school, to students who say that they no longer feel anxious and feel listened to for the first time in their lives, the garden is empowering people everyday to make choices that positively affect them and the world around them.

Also I would encourage readers to let young children have an area of the garden that is theirs and give them the freedom to have responsibility for it and the tools to make it what they imagine. It will be a life-changing experience for them and you!

I get the opportunity every year to be a part of someone putting a seed in the ground or harvesting something for the very first time. I always try to make it a big deal and special moment because for them it is. I think recognizing the magic and the wonder in those moments and encouraging them to do the same creates lifelong memories, and a connection to the earth and each other.
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Get ideas for gardening with children in Project Garden.

Order the Children’s Garden Collection, a group of vegetable and flower seeds sure to capture young gardeners’ imaginations.

Read the story of the White House Kitchen Garden in American Grown by Michelle Obama, which includes advice for starting your own back-yard, school or community garden.

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