Experiential learning starting with dirty hands

School gardening is the easiest shorthand for what the Vegetable Project is about. But make no mistake about the importance of gently nudging kids to get their hands dirty. Indeed, we might argue that the tactile experience in as simple an act as stirring water and potting mix together with ungloved hands, as Myers Middle School students did repeatedly this morning, is a crucial ingredient missing from most mainstream teaching and learning.

To begin with, our classrooms are used largely for transmission of information from teacher to student, which is a pretty narrow conception of teaching and learning. And students use two of their five sense to receive such information, sight and hearing. And that’s a problem. Our sense of touch, taste and smell are critical parts of being sentient beings. More than that, teaching should serve needs of students with multiple learning styles. But most of all, learning from experience is often deeper and more meaningful than word-based transmission of information. And experiences without touching makes up a pretty slender slice of the experience universe.

So, school gardening’s support for experiential learning can always include encouraging kids to get hands dirty, whether indoors or outside. And an approach to that can almost always include suggesting digging and mixing. But here’s the key: it should be without pressuring and without rushing to offer gloves. Kids will move beyond their comfort zones when they are ready, but not when we harangue them and not if we make it completely unnecessary. 

The hands you see pushing water and potting mix around in the accompanying photo were part of a class initiative today that involved starting about 1,500 pea seeds (with 1,000 more planned for tomorrow). We are growing pea shoots by the 10-inch-by-20-inch tray with five family and consumer science classes. Very young pea plants, whose stems and leaves taste just like fresh peas, will anchor a green salad that each class will make in two weeks. And just like many kids’ hesitancy to get their hands dirty, many kids will probably be hesitant to eat greens, and especially greens that aren’t wrapped in plastic. But also, just as many kids overcame their hesitancy this morning to getting their hands dirty – because we were gentle in nudging them –we fully expect many to overcome their hesitancy to eat the greens we’re growing, partly because we are gentle in our nudging, but also because participation in growing the greens will make all the difference in the world.

It seems to us like an approach to teaching and learning.

–Bill Stoneman

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