My library branch is in the middle of a food desert. Our lower-income neighborhood has no true grocery store; instead, convenient marts and fast food restaurants abound. Most of the children who come to the library grab snacks or fried food from the nearby gas station.
I myself am not a paragon of nutrition, but when you see even the skinniest of kids in the summer living on 2 liters of pop and off-brand hot Cheetos, you realize that the long-term effects on children’s health are very real…even if you can’t tell by simply looking at them.
We have long served lunches from our local food bank to children, but, at the prompting of our administration, we wanted to do something different—get the kids outside and gardening. Many of our youth live in apartment buildings, so outdoor play and gardening knowledge can be hard to come by.
Three years ago, with the help of the Cleveland Botanical Garden, we developed a learning garden in a plot of land adjacent to our children’s room. Thanks to a private donor, the next year we were able to greatly expand the garden to six raised beds for vegetables and two long flower beds. We have grown corn, beans, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, and many herbs, which are often a huge “hit” with the children. Many do not realize that mint is a plant, and have never even heard of thyme, oregano, and basil. They love sampling the leaves.
Most of our successful programming is done on the fly. Our families tend not to register for programs, so we developed small weekly activities to engage the children who happen to be in the library. For example, we painted pet rocks to put in the garden and created seed tape with seeds, glue, and toilet paper strips which were then planted. Through these simple programs, we developed quite a following amongst the local kids, who started to view the garden as their own backyard. Because of this use, next year’s expansion will include a large sandbox.
Last year, we were also lucky to receive a grant from the National Center for Families Learning to host an intensive family engagement program for families with children ages 3-5 called Let’s Learn Together Outside. This three-week program focused on getting parents to use outdoor play and discovery to affect their children’s health, scientific interest, and pre-literacy skills. The program
began with a meal. Then one librarian took the children for a storytime and easy craft while another (myself) talked to parents about being their child’s first teacher. Families then reunited to spend time together with an outdoor activity, where parents could practice the skills previously discussed. After a successful grant, we expanded the program to 8 branches this summer. You don’t need a garden, per se, to put on this program…just an outdoor area.
I would love to hear from other libraries that have an outdoor space to see what you have done to engage youth. For those who want to see the pinnacle of children’s learning gardens, check out Middle Country Public Library on Long Island and their Nature Explorium.
This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: I. Commitment to Client Group and III. Programming Skills.