Experiential learning outside the classroom: Sowing the seeds of education

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Are there opportunities for more experiential learning at your school? Northmount School's Manfred J. von Vulte explores the shift from agricultural learning to technological-based learning in the classroom and how to sow the seeds of education outside in nature.

From Agricultural Foundations to the Technological Garden

Urban designers of the 19th Century had lamented the visible passing of pastoral or agricultural traditions. Many like Frederick Law Olmsted (Central Park, Mount Royal) witnessed the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and the mass exodus from the countryside to the city. The concept of the urban park, as a respite for the physically and mentally exhausted came into vogue quickly. Even in Canada, the Fraser Institute cited that in the year 1900, about half the population still lived in the country, but by 2010, that percentage had fallen below 10%. There was arguably a cultural echo of sorts that cascaded through the 20th Century from successive generations that carried forth a community of memory from their agricultural heritage.

The other significant factor was of course the continuous waves of immigration throughout the last century from Ireland, the Ukraine, and the rest of Europe through the post-world war periods, and then a further accentuation of the Canadian mosaic from all corners of the globe, in the latter half of the century. Our society has largely become an urban dwelling folk, whose perceived connection to genuine agriculture might consist of the Sunday drive, visiting a farmer's market, or for the younger, Facebook savvy crowd, playing Farmville over the Internet. The transition to a service and information economy has ironically left some critical and time-in-memorial expertise waning, if not forgotten. This progressive move forward has also had as a casualty boys' education.

The Impact of Nature, Urban Gardens and Learning Outside the Classroom

As a child, I was always impressed with my uncle's garden. He grew a lot of flowers, which were pretty, but as a boy, I characteristically wanted some plants that delivered results: fruits and vegetables. He grew many berries, tomatoes, beans, and other produce. During the month of May, there would also be a massive pile of topsoil delivered to his home, and even though I didn't live there, on occasion, I can recall helping my cousins to cart it to the backyard. Much of the knowledge and enthusiasm for creating and maintaining a garden stuck with all of us in the family, and now as adults we all have some sort of garden where we live.

Throughout the 1980's, there still existed a significant number of Italian and Portuguese families in Scarborough. My friends from those cultures would boast huge gardens in their backyards, with tomatoes the size of one's fist, and grapes that would be pressed into wine, and then poured into the proudly displayed demijohns. Many of their traditions also reverted back to "the old country"  and whether through direct instruction, or implicit inspiration, the emulation and co-opting of those skills was not lost on many from Generations X and Y.

As boys, we would ask questions, witness the results and rewards of hard work, and if lucky enough, have a parent, an uncle, or a grandfather who would transfer knowledge the old fashioned way, through experience and sweat.

Fostering Real Life Experiences and Cross-Connections Through Nature and Literature

If Olmsted's parks served the tired masses of the industrial and commercial cities of the past century, then might it be fair to say that the urban garden may offer the same hiatus for the minds of the information age? Perhaps so, but our students must be afforded opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. As teachers, we need to pull them away from the complacent classroom dynamic of text-to-paper pedagogy and provide them with some real experiences. We must not fall into the trap that Google, YouTube, or some "app" will offer a bridge to a genuine experience supplanting a true engagement of the senses; that's bubble wrapped, lazy logic. We need to get our hands dirty again. Male students especially, need to recoup this experiential transfer of knowledge and reapply it to a personal renaissance of a love of learning.

Follow this educational paradigm and its sequence. My fifth grade class at Northmount School, a Catholic school in Toronto, Ontario is reading a book entitled, The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau, it is the sequel to the popular The City of Ember. Our novel depicts the struggles of the refugees of Ember and their adaptation to an agrarian culture (LANGUAGE ARTS). We are studying biodiversity, fluvial geography, and structures as individual constructs and co-existing environmental realities (SCIENCE). The Grade 5's are also learning about Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, and early civilizations (SOCIAL STUDIES). During religion, we also examine the relationship between the agrarian culture of Judea in relation to the major movements regarding faith in the Old and New Testament (RELIGION). Where do we plug in the experiential learning and application?

Getting Back to the Roots of Education in the Garden

This week we drew out a plan for a school vegetable garden, prior to which I had instructed the class on whom to call before digging. All of the respective utilities gave us the permission to commence the project. Another student recalled that the potatoes in the City of Ember were shriveled and weak, so we studied our desired area for total sunlight exposure. The students and I excavated a four meter by nine meter plot at the back of the school. Suddenly, a rush of water seemed to explode from the side of the building. The boys all stood back in awe, and me, in fear. Had we broken a water pipe? No, it was the sump pump gushing out water from the roof and basement of the school.

The boys recalled the irrigation principles they had learned about in Science and Social Studies, and decided to dig a trench that would reroute the water into the edging of the garden. Like the Babylonians and their gardens, ours too, would be almost self-sufficient as far as water was concerned. We also witnessed a rabbit and applying our biodiversity lessons and some colloquial agricultural knowledge, we placed Tabasco sauce around the outside of the garden to keep vermin away. Toward the end, many of my students said they knew how hard our ancestors must have worked, how difficult the people of Ember had it in Sparks, and how good they felt about where the vegetables were going to go in September. Many deemed the experience of planting and gardening as calming and relaxing, saying as much.

Aside from cross-curricular connections, vegetable gardening also teaches empathy. Our students agreed that the produce will entirely go to one of the kitchens or organizations in the City of Toronto that takes care of the less fortunate.

—Manfred J. van Vulte
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