Two girls pick the first strawberries of the season, a boy exclaims over the size of a red onion and another group works together to dig up a particularly stubborn dandelion.
This is a typical morning in the garden at KidsPeace’s Temple, Pa., campus, where students have a chance to get their hands dirty, learn life skills and forget some of their troubles for a short time.
The garden plot, which has expanded every season since the first bed was created six years ago, is packed with organized sections of produce. Carrots, beets, spinach, lettuce, herbs, onions, garlic, broccoli and blueberries are planted in neat rows. Trellises surround cucumbers, pumpkins and gourds, and a bright patch of sunflowers and marigolds will soon line one side of the garden. See more garden photos.
Nearby compost bins stocked with worms – to speed the process of breaking down waste – turn food scraps and paper into nourishment for the garden. Strategically stacked piles of cinderblocks, wood and dirt scattered around the garden serve as houses for toads. Since the garden is organic, it’s important to utilize toads and other natural forms of pest control.
“It’s all kid-driven,” said Fred Indenbaum, a master’s level therapist who leads the garden project.
The advantages for the children who work in the garden are countless, Indenbaum says. Impulse control, self-esteem building, a sense of connectedness in a digital age, an appreciation for aesthetics, conflict resolution, problem solving and a commitment to hard work all go into the project. But the biggest part, he says, is how gardening teaches the children to look outside of themselves and consider the needs of others, a key element of healthy child development.
“For me, the empathy is probably the central part of this whole thing,” he said. “A lot of our kids lack that.”
The children are learning to care for another living thing, and they realize quickly the consequences of not giving it their all.
“They learn that when they put in, they get something back,” he said. “It’s an immense feeling of accomplishment.”
They also get paid in produce. The children on the Berks County campus are there for day treatment, as part of either an acute partial or educational program. When they go home in the evenings, they often take produce or flowers with them, eagerly sharing the fruits of their hard labor with their families. Much of what is grown in the garden also gets used in the cafeteria on campus.
Indenbaum asks the young gardeners for their ideas to give them the opportunity to own both successes and mistakes along the way.
“It helps to re-frame failure. It will be flawed. I want it to be flawed,” he said. “It’s important to see the whole process. Life doesn’t magically appear fully formed.”
Indenbaum points out the garden can give the children perspective into their own troubles too.
“Your mom abandoned you, your dad’s incarcerated. What do you do?” he asked.
“The garden is not a metaphor for life. It is life,” he said. “They get a lot of messages here that aren’t necessarily spoken, but are given.”