Natasha Hegmann is a service member in Ennis. 

Come the wintry months of December, January, and February, the work of a FoodCorps member is not so glamorous. Gone are long, sun-kissed summer afternoons frolicking in the garden, to be replaced by weeks of harsh wind and cruel temperatures. This time of the year I find myself hunched over my computer screen, under the flickering florescent lights of my office, writing grants for cooking programs, planning garden curriculum, and perusing articles on outdoor education. The work is important, but some days I feel as though I’ve done nothing but stare at a computer screen all day.

In this digital age it is not surprising that many of the students I serve also spend an inordinate amount of time plugged in. Studies show that the average 8-18 year old spends 7.5 hours per day using screen media — not just TVs, but also cell phones, computers, and tablets. Often, children are engaged with more than one type of screen media at once. Most kids spend less than 30 minutes outside engaged in play or sports per day. Having seen students thrive in outdoor education settings, I see this lack of engagement with the natural world as a lost opportunity. One fascinating study found that exposure to nature and immersion in natural settings has a measurable positive effect on higher-order cognitive skills and creativity
Atchley, 2012

Reflecting on this data reminds me of the efforts I have made to encourage students to step away from screens and engage with the natural world. In May 2012, I worked with Ennis 3rd grade students to plan and plant the Native American “Three Sisters” in the newly constructed school garden. Before we planted the garden I explained how the Three Sisters–corn, beans and squash–help each other grow, and the students acted out the relationship I described: corn sprouts grew quickly up, providing a trellis for the beans, which twirled round and up stalks of corn, rooting them into the ground; finally a thick cover of squash plants spread over the soil, keeping in moisture and preventing weeds from growing. Students then broke into groups and chose from different heirloom varieties of corn, beans and winter squash to plant in their Three Sisters Gardens. Students left for summer vacation shortly after the garden was planted.

Three Sisters Garden

The Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash, grow together in the Ennis School Garden.

The Three Sisters complement each other ecologically (beans fix nitrogen in the soil which feeds the corn, the corn provides a trellis for the beans, and the squash shades out weeds and traps moisture in the soil) as well as nutritionally.

Five months later, the same students, now 4th graders, harvested the Three Sisters Garden. They carefully observed the mature corn, beans and squash and journaled about how the garden had grown and changed throughout the season. One class cured squash and stored it in their classroom. The other fourth grade class harvested the corn and dried it in their classroom.

cornperson After harvesting sweet corn from the garden, students learned the Native American talke of the corn husk doll and used the dried husks to make their own corn husk dolls.

The culmination of the Three Sisters Garden project was a cooking party. Students used a hand-crafted grain mill to carefully grind dried corn into cornmeal. Then, taking cues from a group of high school culinary arts students, they mixed up batter for cornmeal muffins. Throughout the 55-minute cooking activity, the students demonstrated incredibly attentive behavior–reading the recipe, following complex directions, and carefully measuring ingredients. Students recalled information about the Three Sisters from previous garden lessons and asked questions that showed thoughtful reflection on the topic, such as “if Native Americans didn’t have grain mills like this one, how did they grind corn into cornmeal?”

grinding_cornmeal4th grade teachers helped grind cornmeal from Oaxacan Green Dent corn to make cornmeal muffins.

Walking back through a year of gardening and cooking with this class highlights how much we’ve all learned and grown. Students who at first couldn’t sit still or remember the rules of the garden were calmly following directions in the kitchen classroom by the end of the year. Illustrations of corn posted outside of 4th grade classrooms are now anatomically correct — with tassels instead of ears of corn at the top of the plants. And, through hours of hands-on teaching time, I have developed the confidence to work with a group of 26 students in the garden, kitchen or classroom. These lessons give me hope for what students accomplish when exposed to the educational world outside of screens, and gives me inspiration to keep planning for the spring.finished muffins