Life Lab

Life Lab cultivates children's love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education.

Amy Carlson

Garden Education Director

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Amy contributed to Sowing Seeds of Wonder and The Growing Classroom

Amy CarlsonI feel incredibly lucky to be here, since 2004, and so inspired by what we do. It’s amazing to be a part of an organization that is continually growing and changing—as if Life Lab is a garden itself! In my time here at Life Lab, we have added three new field trip programs, a new summer camp, a number of new publications… and that’s only what I have had the pleasure of being involved with. Our new Blooming Classroom has also sprouted up in the past few years, as well as many new educator workshops and a wealth of online resources for educational gardens.

I came to Life Lab from a long road of outdoor experiences, beginning with my childhood camping trips. My family camped for two weeks or more each summer, and monthly the rest of the year. I spent many hours exploring hillsides and creeks with my friends on those trips, building things out of sticks, climbing trees, swimming in rivers, eating huckleberries, and watching dragonflies. My family did not have a garden, but I spent much time in a neighbor’s wild backyard, bringing home tadpoles and creating my own “tadpole garden” which frogs returned to for years, laying their eggs in my dish-tub pond. My first experience eating food straight from the plant was a visit to my uncle’s farm in Montana, where we wandered the long rows and crunched green beans. That childhood memory of eating fresh food straight from the source stuck with me and is an experience I have the privilege of providing for children every day at Life Lab.

In college I worked toward my dream of becoming a park naturalist, volunteering at state and national parks teaching interpretive programs. I even paid my dues working as a living history guide at a California mission, to get the required experience to be hired as a naturalist by CA State Parks! For five summers I worked as a park naturalist, while studying environmental education (a major I created) and then music at Humboldt State University. While at Humboldt I got my first taste of garden-based learning as a volunteer in the children’s garden at the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. I’ll never forget helping 2-year-olds plant fava beans and watching them blow a kiss to each bean to help it grow!

I truly discovered my love for garden- and farm-based education after graduating, at Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont. I worked there for two seasons as a Farm Educator in the Children’s Farmyard, and was swept away by the important and beautiful task of getting kids connected to their food supply. Along with the visiting children, mainly preschool-aged, I milked cows, brushed horses, made butter, fed sheep, combed wool, picked and ate strawberries and green beans, watched baby goats come into the world, and rounded up chickens at the end of the day. While in Vermont, I earned my Master Gardener certification in hopes of continuing along the path of garden-based learning.

Back in California in 2003, I completed an internship (and worked at my first summer camp) at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, and then serendipitously found Life Lab and a position here as a Garden Educator. Soon after finishing at Hidden Villa, my parents were helping me and my partner move to Santa Cruz and we decided spontaneously to attend the Harvest Festival at the UCSC Farm. My dad was browsing the info tables at the Harvest Fest and saw a job announcement on the Life Lab table. He said something to the effect of “Oh, let me get my daughter!!!” to Gail, our director, and brought me over to talk with her and John Fisher. Five days later, I was Life Lab’s newest Garden Educator, leading field trips in the Garden Classroom and counting my lucky stars!

Since then I have taken on coordination as well as teaching of our summer camps, field trip programs, and internship program, as well as doing special projects such as helping develop the Sowing the Seeds of Wonder preschool & Kindergarten garden curriculum and workshops, or putting together a school garden manual for the American Heart Association. My current favorite accomplishment at Life Lab is the creation of our newest camp, Garden Sprouts for 4-6 year olds. This camp has been a huge success and absolute delight, and I can’t wait to teach it again this year.

Outside of my time here at Life Lab, I tend my own garden and my own little gardener, my daughter Greta, born in 2007. Cooking fresh food and making music also occupy my days. “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow…”


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Teaching a Growing Classroom Workshop at @OakSpringGardenFoundation in collaboration with I feel like I’ve fallen into a small French village. This is the former estate of Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon in Virginia. Mrs. Mellon was an avid horticulturalist who designed the White House Rose Garden! I am staying in the room where Jackie Kennedy stayed when she visited here!! Sharing a weekend in this space with teachers who love kids and gardens is a truly unforgettable experience. ... See MoreSee Less

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Just when I thought we’d seen it all ... this is an agrophotovoltaic school garden underneath massive solar panels at @Manzo.Ecology in Tucson. The elementary school students here gather and analyze data on how the shade from the panels helps the plants grow and how the plants help cool the panels and increase their efficiency. What?!?! It’s amazing and gives me hope. Oh, and also they have a desert tortoise in their courtyard. ... See MoreSee Less

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Have you heard?! Life Lab is one of New Leaf Community Markets' recipients of their EnviroToken program at their Westside Santa Cruz store! So get your shopping on, bring your reusable bags, and donate 10¢ to Life Lab with every bag you use! Thank you, New Leaf!
#thankyou, #grateful, #ReduceReuseRecycle, #isupportlifelab
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What happens when Whole Kids Foundation partners with you to bring 50+ leaders from School Garden Support Organizations from across the country together to get to talk shop, inspire each other, problem-solve around shared challenges, and eat amazing food prepared and served by happy 5th graders? MAGIC. That's what happens. #sgso2018 ... See MoreSee Less

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Have you heard?! Life Lab is one of New Leaf Community Markets' recipients of their EnviroToken program for their Westside Santa Cruz store! So get your shopping on, bring your reusable bags, and donate 10¢ to Life Lab with every bag you use! Thank you, New Leaf!
#thankyou, #grateful, #ReduceReuseRecycle, #isupportlifelab
... See MoreSee Less

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We are so grateful to be starting 2018 with such strong support! Because of so many generous gifts from our supporters like you, we surpassed our 2017 fundraising goal of $124,000, with all campaign donations totaling $125,835.

These funds will help make Life Lab field trip and summer camp programs possible for children from families and schools that could otherwise not afford them. We believe that ALL children deserve the chance to love learning, healthy food, and nature. Thanks to your support, this year we will serve even more children in Santa Cruz County and across the nation.


#beapartofit, #startingstrong, #changinglives, #isupportlifelab
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Happy almost 2018, Life Lab fans! We are only $809 dollars away from reaching our $124,000 year-end fundraising goal! Before you ring in the new year, will you help us ensure a promising 2018? 100% of the funds necessary to do this important work come from grants and from individuals like you. Will you join us in ensuring that we can continue to deepen and expand our reach, so that even more children can experience the joy of loving learning, healthy food, and nature? Your tax-deductible gift made by midnight tonight will go directly to supporting our programs.
#beapartofit, #changinglives, #optoutside, #gardenbasededucation, #happynewyear
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Life Lab has been the most innovative and relevant organization in this field. From providing the best curriculum to their cutting edge professional development, we have relied on Life Lab as our go to organization for support, ideas, and collaboration.
Rachel PringleSenior Director of ProgramsEducation Outside
Life Lab provides truly inspiring training. Their breadth of experience, joy for teaching, and commitment to sharing knowledge highlight the best practices in food and garden education.
Erica CurryTraining and Professional Development ManagerFoodCorps
Thank you for such a wonderful field trip experience! Your leaders did such a great job at keeping our kids engaged.
Sheila BrickenKindergarten TeacherSan Lorenzo Valley Elementary
Terry had another awesome two weeks at Life Lab. I think he learns more there than in any other part of his year. School is great, but he’s passionate (and often dogmatic) about what he learns there.
Tara NeierCamp ParentSummer camp mom