By Matthew Kitchen, Phase II Fellow
Over the span of this summer, I’ve had the incredible experience of working with summer camp kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Waynesboro, Staunton, and Augusta County and the Summer Learning Loss Prevention Program (a partnership between the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA and Staunton City Schools). Through this experience, these kids have taught me a great deal.
On each of Project Grows’ field trips and on the first day of its summer camps, our staff lead a body movement activity that mimics the different stages of a flowering plant’s life cycle.
We start out by pretending to dig a hole in “our garden.” Then, we explain that we have a handful of magic seeds that have the power to turn each kid into that very seed. We pass the “seeds” out, turning the group into a bunch of “seeds.”
After we’re all crouched down and acting like seeds, we ask, “What do seeds need to grow?” You never know what answers you’re going to get from kids - I’ve heard “French fries!” as a possible answer - but eventually we get to the idea that seeds need water, soil to grow in, and warmth to get started. As each need is said, it gets acted out. For water, we give a quick spritz of water from a spray bottle, for soil, we shift our feet to dig into the ground, and for warmth, we give ourselves a hug. When we’ve got all that we need to grow, we start to shake and then pop up, our hand-cotyledons at our sides sprouting into little seedlings.
Now as plants, we ask the same question, “What do plants need to grow?” After eliciting similar responses, which we continue to play out, we grow, eventually flower, make seeds, disperse the seeds, and end as a seed again.
In planning these field trips, we always take into account that the kids will need water set up ahead of time so that we can take water breaks, areas of shade so that no one gets overheated under the summer sun, etc. I knew that kids, and all of us, need these things, but this summer, there are three additional things that kids need to grow that stand out to me.
After a particularly difficult summer camp trip, our Education Manager told our team that in all her years of working with kids, affirming kids on what they are doing well seems to work much better than reprimanding them for what they are doing wrong. While this doesn’t change how important it is to talk to kids about what they’ve done wrong, this focus on affirmation was a total reversal of discipline than what I had experienced, and thereby learned, growing up. Since then, I’ve observed how celebrating what each kid is doing well and validating their feelings in all circumstances, leads to such growth as they turn to seek the sun.
Right after leading a small group of kids through preparing a fruit salad, one of the campers went behind my back, opened the cooler that holds our ingredients, and proceeded to try and eat the rest of the watermelon that we were saving for the other groups of campers that had not come to the station yet. I was so frustrated with this kid. When we debriefed the trip after the camp, our Education Manager asked me, “Did you tell the group beforehand that they weren’t allowed to go in the cooler? You can’t blame them if you never set that boundary.” I was struck for a second, but then realized that that made sense. I needed to set boundaries at the start so that each kid could channel their energy to grow upward instead of all over the place.
During one of the summer camp trips, one of our campers ran up the mulch pile and did not come down when I asked him to. As a consequence, I put him in time-out on the bus with the bus driver for short time. After that exile, the kid behaved even worse than before and tried to stay as far away from me as possible. It wasn’t until later that I realized what I had done. By not showing him that I cared about him to begin with, I communicated to him that I didn’t want him around and, possibly, that I didn’t care about him. Being present with kids, giving them attention, and showing them that you care allows them to feel safe and warm enough to sprout.
I feel that being a farmer is very akin to being an educator, a parent, and a friend; we are caretakers who seek to foster growth. Working with kids requires a ton of patience, a whole lot of grace, and plenty of caring. But something as simple as seeing that one kid squeal and smile after seeing the marigold he planted grow and blossom, it is so worth it.