Welcome to The
Radical Root Blog


Your go-to resource for all things Radical Gardening and food system justice. Subscribe below for your free Radical Gardening Resource Guide and monthly updates. 

Youth Grow: Cultivating Curiosity in Elementary Schools

in our own words youth grow

Youth Grow in Elementary Schools

Of the 3,000 students involved in Youth Grow, about 2,800 are in kindergarten through fifth grade. Garden Educators each teach 4-8 classes per week at 1-2 schools, with the belief that more focused workloads allow educators to build deeper relationships with school communities. Youth Grow also offers afterschool and summer programming in collaboration with SUN.

Garden Educators and teachers collaborate to schedule 8-12 classes throughout the year, which are taught by the Garden Educator. There are 72 garden lessons in total in the Youth Grow curriculum, covering themes of food, positive identity, science, culture, and garden leadership. The curriculum provides a standard framework, but is intended to be adapted by Garden Educators, teachers, and students to best fit their needs and interests. “We want the garden to be an inviting space for students and families, and for it to be reflective of their culture,” Cat Ayala, the Youth Grow Coordinator and Educator at Kelley Elementary School, said. “Students tend to want to share, and the garden can be a place for storytelling.”

Some Garden Educators have a background in environmental science or agriculture, others in nutrition, cooking, or yoga, and they may choose to focus on activities where they can bring in this area of expertise. Teachers may have specific goals for their class, such as supplementing a core curriculum, and Garden Educators work to make sure this is reflected in the garden lessons. Additionally, students at the same age level can have different interests and move at different paces, and Youth Grow hopes to meet all students wherever they are.


Garden Classes

The first few lessons focus on establishing classroom and garden culture, with activities such as scavenger hunts and games that help to create a sense of place in the garden. During the winter months, when there isn’t much to do directly in the garden, the focus shifts to cooking classes and food culture exploration. Before spending time outside in the garden, Garden Educators work with classes to set norms and expectations for respecting the environment and ensuring it can be an effective learning space. Garden lessons often begin with mindfulness exercises and the garden is emphasized as a place to take care of plants, animals, each other, and one’s self.

“The lesson may be about the life cycle of a worm, but it’s really about empathy,” Amoreena Guerrero, Youth Grow Director, said. “We are teaching that everything in our surroundings has value.” By encouraging students to explore their empathy for other living creatures, Youth Grow hopes they will extend this care toward each other, building strong classroom communities. 

Success, then, is not measured by a students’ ability to memorize the concepts they were introduced to, but by their reactions to experiences such as encountering a worm in their garden. Do they approach it with curiosity, while before they may have recoiled? When introduced to a new food, do they readily taste some when before they may have expressed disgust or fear? And, importantly, do the students self-report enjoying their time in the garden?

“When we are outside for any reason they now see things they never knew existed: birds, pollinators, insects and seedlings,” a second-grade teacher at Glenfair said of her class’s experience in the garden. They want to learn more and more about each of these. It’s like a light-switch was flipped on!”

Since growing cycles often don’t align with the academic year, Youth Grow tries to create continuity between years. For example, third-graders might learn about how corn germinates in the winter, then plant corn in the spring. The next fall, when the corn is ready to harvest and the students are now fourth-graders, they will harvest it, make popcorn, and learn about its cultural origins.

Ideally, Garden Educators work with full grade levels at a time to ensure an equitable experience, but including garden classes throughout the year is a process that individual teachers opt into. Youth Grow programming began with SUN reaching out for support in maintaining school gardens, and continues to develop in response to what schools, teachers, and students ask for.

“Our primary objective is to develop a culturally-responsive curriculum,” Betsy Lattig, Youth Grow Lead Educator, said. “What foods are important to kids? How can we grow these things in the garden?”

While garden classes teach students tangible skills and facts, Growing Gardens believes that the most valuable thing that garden education can provide is not necessarily academic enrichment, but a sense of belonging and connection. 

Elementary schoolers are often curious to learn more about their surroundings, and excited to share with one another about their interests and backgrounds. The garden provides a meaningful space for this kind of exchange, and shows students that learning and play are not mutually exclusive. This space extends to families as well, connecting them with local food systems and school communities. By grounding students’ early experiences with food and growing in community and sharing, Youth Grow hopes to lay a foundation for a lifetime of understanding these things from a framework of justice and community.


Connecting With Farms and Families

Youth Grow programming connects these in-class experiences with other aspects of students’ school and home lives as well. Once a month, Youth Grow partners with local farmers to host tastings in the cafeterias at all the partner elementary schools. Garden Educators prepare fresh produce from the farmers into snacks such as root vegetable bread or spinach pesto, and then serve samples in the cafeteria during lunchtime. These tastings are a way to connect students with local farms and farmers and to encourage openness to trying new foods. “We want to help students form new perspectives around food and wellness,” Amoreena said.

Youth Grow also brings in local farmers as guest speakers, often the farmers who grew the food for the tasting. “Part of our work is participating in local food systems,” Amoreena said. “We want to invest in communities.”

Youth Grow prioritizes working with BIPOC farmers for these tastings and talks, both to financially back equity in local food systems and to ensure that the early connections students form with local food systems appropriately reflect their diversity.

A couple times a year, Youth Grow gives students take-home kits with ingredients from local farms, often including plants that the students have studied in garden class. Sometimes, these kits have ingredients and tools for specific projects, such as green salsa or popcorn. Other times, they contain a collection of produce, such as different kinds of apples or a mixture of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and recipe suggestions, but families are encouraged to use the ingredients however they would like. The kits are not designed to provide sustenance, but rather to offer a taste of fresh produce and an opportunity for families to do an activity together. However, they always provide information on where the produce comes from, to open an avenue for families to connect with local farms and programs such as CSAs.

Then, students can come back to school and share with one another what their family did with the produce, perhaps starting conversations about food cultures and traditions. The projects are an opportunity for families to spend some quality time together and for students to share what they have been learning. “They are tied to lessons so kids can be a leader in their family,” Amoreena said.

Expanding garden education beyond the classroom can connect families with local food systems, fresh food, and positive gardening experiences. “We try to go to where families are, instead of asking them to come to us,” Amoreena said.

Garden Educators connect with families in different ways, depending on the context of the school and community. Many send out regular email updates about what students are doing in the garden, or have tables at community nights or open houses. At these events, Garden Educators offer samples of food from the garden, or recipes that students helped to develop in SUN clubs, and use this chance to connect with families to learn what foods are important to them, what kinds of produce they would like to be planted, and how they would like to connect with the garden. Youth Grow also sources this information from regular surveys sent out to families.

Additionally, produce from the school gardens is usually donated to the school’s food pantry or one nearby. Some schools hold open garden hours for families who are able to come, along with weekly food giveaway tables when produce is being harvested in the fall and late spring.

“We want our work to be supportive to what schools and communities are already doing,” Betsy said.


Middle School

While Youth Grow is highly involved at the elementary and high school levels, Youth Grow in middle schools has largely taken the form of special sessions and talks instead of a continuous program. 

Youth Grow has partnered with Happiness Family Farm to hold talks for middle schoolers to introduce farming as a potential career path, in addition to gardening and cooking workshops to connect students with local farmers. 

Youth Grow hopes to expand middle school programming in the future to bridge the elementary and high school programs, and to offer support during this developmentally challenging time. Garden education at the middle school level can recontextualize gardening for students entering their teenage years. A lot can be lost between fifth and ninth grade, and middle school garden education can shift students’ perspective on gardening from something for little kids to a practice that can fit into their teenage and even adult lives, as a holistically healthy lifestyle, social activity, and potential career path.

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join the Radical Root mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

Read This Next..

Nurturing Curiosity: Early Childhood Garden Education with Youth Grow

Partnering for Change: Growing Gardens' Community Garden Initiatives

Cultivating Resilience: How Home Gardens is Transforming Lives

Learn How to Sow Seeds of Change With The Radical Gardening Resource Guide!

Download the Radical Gardening Resource Guide for actionable steps to transform your love of gardening into a powerful force for community impact.