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Starting a School Garden Summer Camp

Originally appears in the Summer 2014 issue

ANYONE INVOLVED WITH a school garden knows the frustration of putting it to bed when school is in full swing, then saying goodbye to it at the end of the school year just as growth in the garden is taking off. We create school gardens to teach our students how to grow food, but much of the growing happens while they’re on summer vacation. Your students miss out on a significant part of the growing cycle, which leaves a gap in their understanding of how plants grow. But there are enjoyable and learningful ways to extend the school gardening season. You can invite children back to the garden during the summer or offer a year-round school garden club.

Summer Garden Day Camp

One fun and easy way to enhance students’ access to the school garden is by running a garden day camp in the summertime. This day camp can be held one day per week throughout the summer, like Saskatchewan’s Greenscapades program does at five different school gardens around the city of Saskatoon. Their program leader develops a theme for each week, such as Seed Frenzy, Garden Folkfest and Plants
that Make Us Feel Better, which is then offered at each school on a different day of the week. I’ve followed a more traditional day camp model. The Gulf Islands Centre for Ecological Learning (GICEL), which runs nature day camps in the southern Gulf Islands between Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, allowed me to add a garden day camp to their roster of summer ecological exploration programs. Running your school garden day camp under the auspices of a school district or other non-profit organization makes promotion, fundraising, registration, accounting and liability insurance issues go more smoothly. You don’t have to be the day camp leader – but
you might be the right person to plant the seed to get a program going.

The program we run at the school on Pender Island lasts five days, Monday to Friday, from 10 am to 4 pm – why start early when it’s vacation time? Each day is organized into chunks of time for garden chores, science, art and fun – which sometimes includes a hike to the nearest beach for swimming. We intersperse these blocks with games, songs, snacks, quiet reflective time in the garden, and field trips to local farms or food gardens. The ground rules we maintain are:
1. Safety first
2. Respect yourself, others and the rest of nature
3. Have fun!
I’ve found that I only had to add one rule to the regular outdoor education ground rules: “You can pick one treat when you go into the garden. The rest is for sharing.”

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Julie Johnston is the resource teacher for the Spring Leaves Family Learning Program at Pender Islands Elementary- Secondary School in British Columbia, where she built the school garden with her students and their parents. Julie also works with teachers around the world as a sustainability education consultant with GreenHeart Education.