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Youth Garden Projects 'Growing' in Popularity

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During the 1990s, the number of U.S. children participating in organized gardening programs increased dramatically. The trend is continuing in the new millennium.

Why all the interest in youth gardening? Because more and more public and private organizations that work with young people are discovering the power of gardening to grow positive and productive people.

Kids benefit from gardening in a myriad of ways. Nurturing plants from seed to harvest can lead to increased feelings of confidence, self-esteem and pride. In the garden, kids learn to cooperate and solve problems together. They learn about the interdependency of all living things and their roles as caretakers of the earth. Gardening offers a hands-on approach to learning, making it easier for many students to master skills and concepts involving math, reading and writing.

Gardening promotes physical health and is a valuable vehicle for teaching lessons about food and nutrition. An entrepreneurial spirit is engendered in kids who participate in market gardening programs in which they have the opportunity to sell what they grow. Last but not least, gardening instills an appreciation for agriculture and its importance in providing food and fiber for a growing world population.

I've had the opportunity to assist with the design and implementation of several youth garden projects in Oklahoma, and have experienced firsthand the value of these programs.

One such project is the Community Bootstrap Garden, operated by the Martin Luther King Outreach Center in Ardmore, Okla. This gardening program offers summer employment opportunities for area young people. The mission of the Bootstrap Garden is to foster the development of a work ethic, self-esteem, citizenship, leadership and entrepreneurial spirit among at-risk youth through involvement in all aspects of growing and marketing high-value crops. Said another way, participants don't just grow plants they grow character.

The Chickasaw Nation Community Garden located in Ada, Okla., is modeled after Ardmore's Bootstrap Garden. In existence for less than a year, the garden provides employment opportunities for area youth. Produce is sold to the general public and is used in the Chickasaw Nutrition Program.

There are numerous school-sponsored garden programs currently operating in Oklahoma. These gardens range in size and sophistication, depending on the number of participating students and the goals and objectives of the faculty. Perhaps you have a child, or know of a child, involved in such a program.

The most critical component of any youth gardening program is supervision. I am aware of several youth gardens that are no longer functioning because of a lack of supervision. If you enjoy gardening and care about young people, consider volunteering your time at a local school or summer gardening program. Your participation will be sincerely appreciated.

Remember, kids are like gardens they tend to grow on you!