Cultural Exchange Through Gardening

Minhuan Qiangwei Primary School garden, "The Wish Farm" (Heather Loewecke/Asia Society)

Minhuan Qiangwei Primary School garden, "The Wish Farm" (Heather Loewecke/Asia Society)

Gardens are increasingly becoming a part of afterschool programs and school culture, and they can be used as a window into other cultures says Kristin Stayer, curriculum advisor to After-School All-Stars.

By Kristin Stayer
May 17, 2018

Community gardens are place-based tools for connection, empowerment, and cultural identity. Today, more gardens are popping up in school yards, in vacant lots, nonprofits, and housing developments. Educators are using gardens as creative and holistic tools for teaching beyond the walls of the classroom.

I came across this article by Margaret Lamar from the Children and Nature Network. She eloquently shares that "natural green spaces are only part of a very complex set of solutions to our divisions, but perhaps they can provide some of the conditions for our coming together—to know one another, to see each other, to tell our stories, and to learn to live and thrive together." She poses ten questions for educators to consider as we use nature as a tool for change. Today, I will be using two of her questions to shape the resources shared in this post:

  • How can we use nature or outdoor programming to encourage cross-cultural exchange and community-based youth leadership?
  • How can the smallest community gardens and the largest botanical gardens foster connections among cultural traditions, food, and multi-generational wisdom?

Neighborhood Engagement

Because gardens produce vibrant and tasteful foods, one idea to celebrate the diversity of your community is to hold a garden feast. During this event, you can invite members of your community to bring a fresh dish from their culture. Provide conversation starters on tables that encourage cross-cultural exchange. In addition to the meal, you can plan music, art, or wellness activities that connect to different heritages. The Regional Park District in Oakland, California, sets a good example for the intentionality of bringing community groups together by holding multicultural wellness walks and trail days.

Or, if you are doing a garden feast as a part of your school or out-of-school time program, here a few ideas to try:

  • Design a cooking club and have students work together to prepare a menu with fresh ingredients from the garden with the culminating event being a community feast.
  • Take a field trip to an ethnic market. Design a list of questions that can be used to spark conversation with shop owners. Have students record foods and products that they are unaware of and later research how the different plants and foods they discovered are used in different cultures. Finally, have students sample foods. If you don't have access to a local ethnic food market, utilize a virtual field trip or use Google Maps to explore markets from around the world.
  • A great resource to use, especially if your youth program does not have a garden, is Nature Works Everywhere's community garden video and lesson plan. This plan will guide you through community engagement steps.

Garden Mosaics

Garden Mosaics, a recognized best practice for connecting youth with the natural world, is a program that incorporates science with cultural and generational traditions. The premise of this program is that the gardeners represent a mosaic of cultures around the world, and the plants that they harvest become the mosaic. The four core values of this program are science, people, cultures, and actions. Educators could use some or all of the content in this program manual to engage students in garden-based learning through storytelling, science, project-based learning, and civic engagement. Cornell provides free resources.

Food and Nutrition/Food Security

Growing cabbage in the Minhuan Qiangwei Primary School garden, "The Wish Farm" (Heather Loewecke/Asia Society)

Access to food and nutrition unfortunately does not come readily to everyone, and millions of children and adults stare into the face of food insecurity every year. According to Feeding America, giving children proper nutrition and access to food can impact "physical and mental health, academic achievement, and future economic prosperity." Gardens can be an integral part of providing nutrition to children. Consider these activities:

Global Agribusiness

Global Agribusiness is the business of agriculture production in the global world. Agriculture itself can be understood as a coming together of science and art. Teaching students the complexities and their role in food systems can be valuable. Engaging students in a garden club during after school hours can have significant impact on their interest in ongoing projects, environmental responsibility, and potential future careers. In Qunu, Africa, leaders have taken on the task of teaching their youth about food security issues through community gardens. There are several ways that educators can teach about global agribusiness:

  • Ask students to visually track where a specific food product comes from when they purchase it from the grocery store.
  • Use the story Weslandia as a starting point for a lesson about how agriculture connects with development, jobs, and community roles.
  • Implement this unit plan from Asia Society's CTE toolkit that has secondary students researching the factors that create successful trade in the food sector.
  • Have students look at crops planted in similar climates around the world and plan to try and grow those crops in their gardens.

Art

The garden provides an abundance of natural materials and resources for learning and practicing art. Consider these ideas:

  • Teaching Tolerance gives a great idea: "Explore plant images and references in works of art, music, and literature. Discuss what you can infer from the pieces about each culture's relationship with the depicted plants."
  • Do you know that you can grow your own instrument? You can! This blog shares multiple ways to use a gourd to create musical instruments from around the world. Invite students to make an instrument and then learn some rhythms together.
  • Read The Global Garden and have students create their own pop-up book, using each page to showcase foods from around the world.
  • Paint a mural with a peace theme, using different languages and images.

My hope is that these resources can empower your education community to use gardens as a place where the exchange of culture comes to life and participants continue to see the world through all lenses. The ideas are endless! Everything from a pumpkin exchange to a community garden feast can build social connection and capital, increase skills and knowledge, improve our mental and physical welfare, and be a positive tool for change.

Related Content

This article is accompanied by a global learning unit plan outline on gardening for out-of-school time.

Download the outline

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