What began as an educational garden pilot project for preschoolers at Appalachian State University’s Child Development Center is growing into something much larger, yielding opportunity for kids all over the High Country. 

The Lettuce Learn project aims to bring educational gardens to local elementary and preschools to teach children about agriculture, farming and healthy eating, all while instilling in them an appreciation for the natural world and its bountiful gifts, according to founder and ASU educator (and graduate student) Courtney Baines Smith.

The goal of the project in its first year is to prove that these kinds of programs are possible and beneficial for the local school systems. 

“We want to show that with the right support … this is what can happen,” Smith said. “That’s our goal for the first year. We hope to show the benefit of the gardens so that the school system will say, ‘We want to find a way to support this, too.’” 

Beginning in March, Baines hopes to expand the Lettuce Learn project to include educational gardens at Parkway, Bethel and Mountain Pathways schools, if the needed funding is met. Lettuce Learn will also have a garden in conjunction with the KAMPN for Autism program in Deep Gap. 

To meet the financial goals of the project, Baines started a BarnRaiser website campaign, asking the public for donations to her cause. 

Funding for the project would go toward stipends for teachers who attend a learning seminar over the summer, compensation for the interns who will be donating months of their time learning about and organizing programs for the gardens, a budget for the gardens and miscellaneous startup costs.

“We’re asking the interns to drive to Parkway and to commit themselves for nine months, and I think it’s really important to provide financial incentives,” Smith said. 

Smith is hopeful that everyone working on the project will do as much as possible to reduce costs by asking for donations of lumber, manure, seeds and other needed supplies from the community. 

The pilot project at the ASU Child Development Center (538 Poplar Grove Road) served as a successful test for the Lettuce Learn project.

“It was fantastic,” Smith said. “We learned a lot and had a ton of help from students, parents and staff, and the children would just get so excited about every week going to do the garden lesson.”

According to Smith, the garden at ASU had a lot of help from the university community, including the ASU Dietetic Association and the Sustainability and Environmental Education Club. 

In fact, the ASU garden has been so successful that Smith has been approached about improvements, such as a sensory garden and a solar panel shed to teach the children about the energy of the sun, with the help of a $500 grant from the university. 

Smith has been involved with the ASU sustainable development program for eight years as an adjunct instructor for the department, which instilled in her a passion for the connections between humans and the environment. 

In addition to teaching, Smith is pursuing her doctorate in educational leadership. She is also involved with the nonprofit, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. 

It wasn’t until Smith had a son a year and a half ago that her focus shifted to connecting kids with nature through food and gardening.

“I’ve always loved children, but my focus came with the realization that an appreciation for the natural world starts when they’re young,” Smith said.

Smith said the gardens will teach children, specifically of preschool age, how food grows, instilling in them an appreciation for the amount of work it takes to yield food from nature. 

As an education student, Smith has begun to learn more about the modern education system.

“My eyes really began to open about the state of our education system, and it seems like there’s this really strong push towards standardized testing and assessment-based learning,” she said. “It’s a lot about numbers, and it really moves kids away from experiential learning. There are many studies that show the advantages of tactile learning.”

Smith’s graduate studies pushed her to research the benefits of school gardens. Having been involved in higher education for years, Smith took upon a new interest in young child development, finding that healthy eating habits start before the age of 5.

“Based on the philosophy of David Sobel, it’s crucial to get young children engaged in the outdoors to develop an empathy for the natural world,” Smith said. “The more you have children interacting with nature, the more likely they’ll turn into adults who value the natural world.”

By planting these garden programs at local schools, Smith wishes not just to have them as extracurricular learning experiences, but programs and classes directly integrated into the standard school curriculum. 

“We want gardens in schools — not just gardens, but garden programs that really assist the teachers to reach their goals within the required curriculum,” Smith said.

She said it’s not about adding an extra burden on teachers, which is where other school gardens have failed, but to assist teachers by helping them to meet curriculum requirements through the gardens.

During the summer, Smith offers a three-day training seminar for local teachers. She hopes to be able to offer the teachers a stipend for their time from the money raised with the BarnRaiser.

In addition, Smith wants each garden to have a paid garden coordinator to oversee the growth and livelihood of each garden, with the help of an intern. This way, the teachers are not left to pick up the extraneous responsibilities that come with raising a garden on top of their jobs educating local youth.

“I’m really hopeful that people will be convinced that this is a worthwhile project,” Smith said. “People can just donate a dollar to the campaign. Any bit helps.”

BRWIA is the fiscal sponsor of Lettuce Learn, helping the organization with financial bookkeeping. Lettuce Learn is its own project, not a part of BRWIA.

To donate to the campaign, and for more information, visit www.barnraiser.us/projects/lettucelearn and www.lettucelearn.org.

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