Children and Youth Program Leader, Senior Extension Associate, Senior Lecturer, Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence Teaching Scholar, Engaged Learning and Research Faculty Fellow, Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Service-Learning
Lori J. Brewer
Adult and Family Education Program Leader, Senior Extension Associate
Our mission is to provide educators with inspiring, research-based gardening resources and professional development to support engaging, empowering, and relevant learning experiences for children, youth, adults, and communities.
We are part of the Department of Horticulture and Cooperative Extension at Cornell University.
Our work encompasses programs, activities, and
projects in which the garden is the foundation for integrated learning and discovery across disciplines, through active and engaging real-world experiences. We are committed to the value of gardening with young people—balancing principles of youth development with garden-based content.
We provide professional development support for New York State residents engaged in mentoring, training, teaching, or other forms of education about gardening, through regional and state-wide in-services and workshops. We also work nationally and internationally through symposia, conferences, and cultural exchanges.
We develop activities, programs, publications, and other educational materials, as well as share general garden information. We pilot test, evaluate, and reflect on all of our materials prior to making them accessible for free on our website.
We partner with faculty and staff in other departments at Cornell, Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and volunteers (including Master Gardener Volunteers) in county associations, and with other organizations throughout the United States and internationally.
At the heart of what we do is a foundation of research-based knowledge.
Meeting the Needs of Children and Youth Through Garden-Based Learning Experiences
The past several years have seen some dramatic changes in the way that we approach garden-based learning. True, we still get really excited about a child’s opportunity to witness a marigold growing from a seed they’ve planted, or hearing from a young person who planted a sunflower house. But we’ve expanded our notion of what constitutes an ideal experience for young people, and have looked increasingly toward the four themes of positive youth development, provided several years ago to the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) system by Dr. Cathann Kress. They have become the basis for how we talk about garden-based learning, how we conduct our workshops, and ultimately, how we view our successes.
Mastery: Learning by doing “I can.”
Long the backbone of garden-based activity, it isn’t difficult to create a long list of all the ways in which a child or youth can gain skills by interacting with the plant world. Hands-on activity, experiential learning, group investigation, and discovery are the very stuff of gardening. We also try to encourage educators working with young gardeners to focus on the long-term goals of learning and to provide prompt feedback.
Several years ago, at an in-service for educators and volunteers interested in garden-based learning, we brought in a panel of 4-H youth to answer questions posed by our attendees. When asked what drives them crazy about the adults in their lives, one teen unexpectedly responded, “You’re all so terrified to see us fail. We can handle it! Let us work it out!” It’s one of the hardest lessons in life, but in gardening as with everything else, plants die, our goals sometimes aren’t realized, and the beautiful gardens of our dreams occasionally sport nothing but weeds. We try very hard to model and teach that failure and frustration are learning experiences, too.
Belonging: Cultivate relationships “I belong.”
In this busy culture of scheduled children, youth and families, it’s easy to forget that more than ever, hanging out with each other has tremendous value. Rainy days and other occasions can be a wonderful chance for hang time. Older adults often have tremendous knowledge about gardening; talking with them can be a way to promote relationships outside the usual scope of young people’s affiliations. And it’s not difficult to promote ties with family and community, since gardening is our nation’s favorite hobby.
Because of all the activity that revolves around the garden, it also isn’t hard to build in small group time to allow for the development of close relationships. Many of the crops we grow have come from all over the world; exploring where our food comes from, and celebrating different ways of sharing and preparing food from the garden, can be an exciting way to show respect for the value of diverse cultures. Perhaps most importantly, although plants need to be watered, and the weeds are ever present, the most critical aspect of our program is remembering to have fun, and to enjoy each other.
Generosity: Gestures of thoughtfulness & shared responsibility “I can make a difference.”
When we say the word generosity, frequently what comes to mind is the giving away of “things.” No question, there is often a lot of produce or flowers to be shared when you’re in the thick of a terrific gardening experience, and many people in our communities can benefit from shared food and beauty. But generosity can include much more. A skilled garden-based learning educator reinforces gestures of thoughtfulness, and asks young people to take responsibility for others. Critical reflection, as a part of a service-learning experience, can be an important pursuit that leads to compassion, a broader scope, and life-long interest in the community.
Power: Authentic youth engagement & decision-making “I matter.”
The area that we believe we most need to address in the garden-based learning arena is power and independence. Often, the people who are the most enthusiastic about gardens and gardening are adults. Nation-wide, these adults are calling the shots, designing gardens for children, developing educational programs for children, instead of thinking in terms of partnering with. A major thrust of our recent research-extension focus has been identifying children’s level of genuine participation in community garden-based projects, and exploring ways to better engage children and youth in decision-making aspects of projects.
When it comes to gardening, there are myriad decisions to make, and before making any, we should consider whether children could or should make the decision. We should include children in discussions, encourage their input, and give them responsibility. There are many obstacles in gardening, from deer and other pests, to weather and site concerns; however, we shouldn’t deprive children of the thrill of overcoming a barrier. Their ideas are often more creative and less burdened with “shoulds” and “the way things are” than ours. The challenging thing can be sharing power with young people, through self-governance, with respect to garden planning, design, implementation and maintenance. It might mean revising our notion of committees, meeting structures, timing, and our whole approach to how our project is organized.
All of these four themes – mastery, belonging, power, and generosity – are relatively easy to work into any garden-based learning effort. It just requires us to see the forest for the trees, and remember that the ultimate goal isn’t just raising crops; it’s growing competent, committed, reflective, and caring young people. Instead of thinking solely of our subject matter expertise, and the important content to be gained from learning about horticulture, it is equally important to consider program factors such as non-scheduled time, opportunities for friends to join in, chances to make a difference in the community, and avenues through which our young participants can voice an opinion.
To work more opportunities for mastery, belonging, generosity, and power into your garden-based learning effort, try using the tool Planning for Positive Youth Development Through Garden-Based Learning. Consider an activity: planting pumpkins, planning a new garden, or hosting a harvest festival. How might you expand it? Use the planning sheet to dig deeper and get the most out of meeting the needs of children and youth in the process.
For more on how we approach garden-based learning, visit Grow Your Program. Here you’ll find more information on the benefits of garden-based learning, research that supports this work, plus tools for planning, organizing, and evaluating your own program.