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  • Tandi Churchill

Project-Based Learning: Little Hands on the Farm

Few things are more captivating to young children than creating and growing their own vegetable gardens. Experiencing the excitement of planting a tiny seed, nurturing it, and then harvesting the edible reward, makes for one fascinating learning experience. During my 2nd year of teaching, I engaged my 1st and 2nd grade mixed-age class in an expedition I called, "Little Hands on the Farm. " For 3 months, I immersed my students in the agricultural processes of planting, harvesting, and selling produce through hands-on, project-based learning. This experiential learning was accomplished through the space, time, and water-saving techniques of square-foot gardening. The final projects, which served to drive the learning, were a student-created organic farmer's market and an informational brochure about the techniques of square-foot gardening.

We dove into our Little Hands on the Farm Expedition the second week of school, (which was mid-August) in order to have enough time to grow and harvest the vegetables before temperatures dropped. As such, it was a "learn-by-doing" approach that is perfect for little learners. After learning about proper spacing techniques and seed depth, each student planted their own carrot seed that second week into one of the square-foot garden boxes. I had planted some tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and lettuce in another box earlier in the summer in order for them to be ready to harvest in the fall. Groups of students took turns each week tending to the gardens by giving each square a cup of sun-warmed water and removing any weeds and/or pests.

The long-term learning targets for this expedition were: 1) I can explain what agriculture is and how it affects my daily life, 2) I can be a producer, 3) I can design, plan, and prepare a farmer's market to sell my raw commodities, and 4) I can create an informational brochure to teach my school community about the benefits of square-foot gardening.

During this expedition, I had the opportunity to take my students on fieldwork to the Utah State Fair so they could engage in an agricultural experience that simulates the process of planting, harvesting, transporting, and selling produce. At the silo, they were each given an apron and a basket and invited to work their way through the exhibit, following the directions at each station.

They collected grain to feed to the animals, "milked" a cow, collected eggs from the hen house, harvested wool from a sheep, and much more. Then they "sold" their harvest at the farmer's market.

The last stop was a grocery store where they were each allowed to purchase an item with their earnings. It was an adorable and powerful learning experience for these little ones. They love this kind of experiential learning and it makes a lasting impression.

After making the important connections between the farm and the grocery store, it was time to move on to an in-depth study of square-foot gardening. This next learning experience was a hands-on opportunity for students to see that farming is not something that is only possible on a large-scale, but can actually be effectively done in their own backyards or even apartment patios. They would learn that the totally organic, time, space, money, and water saving techniques of square-foot gardening were accessible to nearly anyone with the will to put them into place. They would be charged with teaching their school community members about these small-scale gardening techniques in an effort to promote more self-sustainability. The 4' x 4' gardens were situated along the side of the school and were tended to regularly. We often held class sessions outside by our garden boxes to engage in discovery-based learning protocols and to record our observations.

The students were placed into 6 expert groups, consisting of 4-5 students per group. The groups were charged with becoming experts on one of 6 aspects of square-foot gardening: Box Building, Soil Mixing, Sowing & Spacing, Care-Taking, Harvesting, and Preparation. Because of their young age, we learned about each aspect as a whole class, whereas when I later taught upper grades, groups would be responsible for researching their expert topic and presenting their findings to the rest of the class. In some cases, I was able to find or re-write grade-level texts for my 1st and 2nd graders to study independently of me but for the most part, we learned about each aspect together.

Each group of 1st-2nd graders was responsible for organizing, drafting, and revising a paragraph about their expert topic to be included in an informational brochure designed to teach their school community about square-foot gardening. I scaffolded this process by only requiring each student in the group to draft 1-2 sentences about their topic. This might not seem like much, but they had to revise their sentences a minimum of 3 times, adding expert terminology, better transitions, and more specific details with each draft. As a result, their sentences reflected a degree of precision well above their grade level. The idea of scaffolding this way was to achieve depth over breadth and it worked quite well.

While the brochures were off to the printers, we turned our attention to the design and creation of our farmer's market. The students wanted to invite the entire school to the market as well as their family members so we looked closely at our potential harvest. Our square-foot garden boxes would yield a multitude of carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash but we could see that it would not be enough for hundreds of guests. As such, we reached out to the community and were overwhelmed by the donations of fruits and vegetables we received from local farmers. The donations were sorted into baskets and the students created signs for each variety.

When the day of the farmer's market arrived, the students were thrilled to finally be able to harvest their commodities and display them for their school community. As the class and I set up tables, baskets, and signage on the auditorium stage, a parent-helper pulled small groups one at a a time to harvest and clean the garden vegetables. Just for fun, each student displayed one carrot for a "contest" like they had seen at the state fair. I awarded 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and Honorable Mention ribbons to each one.

The farmer's market was a huge success! Every class from Kindergarten to 8th grade took time out of their schedule to allow their students to participate. The excitement and support my little 1st and 2nd graders felt was unforgettable. The proceeds from the market went towards the price of printing the brochures to ensure that each student in the school would receive a copy.

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