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As Florida schoolteacher Susan Burns puts it, when you expect a lot from a 7-year-old, you get a lot in return.
Burns has overseen the educational garden at her school for years, writing grants to plant and maintain it and using its harvest in her classroom lessons. But last year, the garden developed a life of its own — thanks to her classroom of second graders.
The children wanted to double the size of the garden. So Burns worked with the kids to write a grant proposal to get funding for the project, and the kids seized the opportunity.
The youngsters compared building materials. They did research to determine how big the garden expansion should be, then drew up exact measurements for the new space. They even priced how much the expansion would cost and determined its annual budget. Finally, they submitted their proposal to the Healthy Jacksonville Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition — and got funding.
“This is a really a children’s garden,” Burns tells the Inside Track. “The adults who are part of the gardening experiences facilitate, but the children really do a lot of self-direction with it.”
Burns and her second graders (who have since moved up to third grade) were among those honored this month for their efforts by the coalition. They joined community members, business leaders and nonprofit groups at a special breakfast, where the coalition handed out 11 “Heart of the Community” awards to people and organizations that are creating healthier environments.
Mrs. Burns received a Community Leadership Award, while her class took home a Youth Leadership Award. Other winners included Jacksonville City Councilmember Lori Boyer, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Foundation and the organization Empowerment Resources.
“No one child experiences the same journey to becoming overweight or obese,” says Dr. Donald George, co-chairman of the coalition and division chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Nemours Children’s Clinic in Jacksonville. “The award ceremony is an important milestone in our community because it highlights the work that citizens, business leaders and nonprofit organizations are doing to create change.”
The garden is really part of the lifeblood of Burns’s classroom. She often uses it to teach science, including lessons such as using homemade sundials to track the progress of the sun (and thus figure out where to plant crops that need the most sunlight).
She’ll also teach math by teaching students to create healthy meals, using the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in the garden. Burns and her kids also plant herbs that are grown in the students’ country of origin, so they can learn about their classmates’ cultures by tasting the flavors found in different dishes.
“The best way that children learn is by doing. The garden is a hands-on and minds-on learning laboratory,” she says. “A day learning outside in the garden is worth almost a month in the classroom.”
Being in the garden also inspires her students to lead healthier lives, Burns says. They make healthier choices in the cafeteria and bring in healthy snacks.
That’s especially important for her students, as the school is located in an underserved area and kids and their families don’t have easy access to healthy food. Students also can bring home the crop yield, so families can prepare healthy meals at home.
“The reaction has only been positive, except for one parent, who came up to me and said, ‘I’m so tired of my daughter saying to me we need to have more vegetables,” Burns says, laughing.
Burns has long had a love of gardening, going back to her childhood when she helped her grandfather in his garden. She was inspired to bring a garden to her own twin daughters’ school years ago during a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, where she spotted a small garden that was being maintained by the Chicago Garden Club and a local elementary school.
“This whole garden was no more than six-by-six, and I said, ‘We can do that,’” she recalls.
Burns brought the idea to her daughter’s teacher — Burns wasn’t an educator herself at the time — and ended up doing the work needed to start a garden at that school. When she became a teacher, Burns was inspired to create a garden for her students.
“When we’re out in the garden, it’s like a birthday party. You’re having so much fun that you don’t realize the amount of learning you are doing in the garden,” she says. “When it’s the end of session, it’s moans and groans, ‘Oh, can’t we stay?’”
Burns’ eager gardeners have now moved onto another school, since her school only serves kindergarten through second grade. But they still come back to the garden after school, where they impart lessons to younger students and reconnect with their old teacher.
“The children will talk to me about their day, and what’s going on at home or the football team they’re playing for or their ballet lessons,” Burns says. “It’s also just a chance for us to just have great conversation.”