Life Lab

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

Posted on at Santa Cruz Sentinel
June 14, 2018
By Calvin Men
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When you ask John Fisher how he knows school gardens have an impact, he’s quick to pluck a memory from years ago.

Third graders were out in a garden and among them was a recent immigrant from Central America. The boy spoke only Spanish, needed a speech therapist for school and had yet to utter a word in class. Fisher saw the boy pause over a strawberry shrub and eye the fruit.

Fisher picked one, handed it to the boy and said “fresa,” Spanish for strawberry. The boy repeated the word to himself and ate the fruit, breaking his three-week long silence.

“That just speaks to the power of garden-based learning,” said Fisher, director of program and partnerships for Life Lab Science Program. “Being in an outdoor setting and outdoor classroom can open up kids in ways that we never expect.”

Life Labs are environments where students marry academics with practical knowledge in a school garden setting. The Life Lab Science Program based out of Santa Cruz is what perpetuates those environments with elementary school students.

“When you’re in a school garden, you really get to know that something rots and turns into soil. You know that food comes from a plant that takes air and sun and soil and water,” Fisher said.

Of the life labs that have taken root in Santa Cruz County schools, the nonprofit has had a hand in planting most of the seeds. So much so that the name Life Lab is usually synonymous with school garden. Life Lab’s origin began in 1979 with a garden at Green Acres Elementary. From there, it slowly grew into a nonprofit organization that spread and took root throughout the county.

School gardens have a deep history within the United States. The then-named U.S. Bureau of Education started the School Garden Army to encourage students to grow food locally during World War I with funding from the national War Department.

But the most recent movement on the federal level came from former First Lady Michelle Obama, who spearheaded the Let’s Move campaign for healthier children during her White House tenure. Part of that included encouraging school gardens, a sentiment that Life Lab capitalized on.

While the nonprofit has seen enthusiasm for school gardens ebb and flow for decades, they’ve also taken matters into their own hands. The program created a curriculum for garden-based learning and published it in 1982. It has since been updated three times.

In addition, the nonprofit offers on-site training to teachers and gives a discount to Santa Cruz County teachers. Don Burgett serves as executive director for the nonprofit and said the organization is aiming to get half of the county schools set up with a thriving garden program.

“Sometimes if a champion moves along … the garden will revert to disuse,” Burgett said. “So we’ve been trying to check back with folks.”

One of those includes a program the nonprofit started in the Watsonville-area. Leaders are starting to see growth in the seeds they planted in South County in 2014. The nonprofit reached out to Pajaro Valley Unified School District after realizing they needed to make more of an impact.

“Up until three years ago, there was just a handful of school garden programs in after school programs in PVUSD,” Fisher said. “It was only three or four schools and there are 16 elementary schools. So we kind of looked at our county and said, ‘Who’s underserved now?’”

Since they began, they won a three-year grant that expanded the program from two schools to five. But it takes more than setting the program up. Fisher and Burgett say they don’t want to fall into the trap of creating a program in times where funding is available and letting it fall into disarray when funding is unavailable.

“We’re really headed into a deeper conversation now with (the Pajaro Valley Unified School District), staff and community about what is the right model to sustain this for the kids in the Pajaro Valley,” Burgett said.

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6 days ago

Life Lab

Headed to New Leaf Community Markets for some shopping?

You can cast your Envirotoken Vote for your favorite non-profit (Hint: Life Lab 😄 ) every time you shop until December 16th.

Ask for your paper ballet at every store!Vote for Life Lab to be a New Leaf Community Markets Envirotoken recipient every time you shop! Paper ballots will be in every New Leaf store until Dec. 16h! See MoreSee Less

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Life Lab

Vote for Life Lab to be a New Leaf Community Markets Envirotoken recipient every time you shop! Paper ballots will be in every New Leaf store until Dec. 16h! See MoreSee Less

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

We’ve kicked off our Year End Giving Campaign by raising $4600 on #givingtuesday. Thank you!

For 2019 Life Lab wants to bring more children into school gardens than ever before. More hands in dirt, more love of healthy foods and more kids saying, "I’m a scientist!"

Donate Today!! lifelab.org/donate See MoreSee Less

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

"Wow, these seeds are so tiny. It’s hard to imagine that they are going to grow into something so big!"

Your donation to Life Lab awakens curiosity in children, join us for #GivingTuesday and plant seeds of hope for the future!

www.lifelab.org/donate

#BeAPartOfIt, #Donate, #SeedsOfHope, #MakingChange See MoreSee Less

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

#GivingTuesday is still going strong. Doesn’t it feel great to know everyone working together can make a real difference? Be a part of the movement! www.lifelab.org/donate
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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

We share our work nationally through workshops and curriculum for teachers and our School Garden Support Organization Leadership Program. Participating educators tell us this impacts over 500,000 students annually!

Be a part of it! www.lifelab.org/donate

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

We look to our work with children and understand that now, more than ever, we must raise our children to be loving stewards of the Earth. For the next generation to protect, defend, and preserve the Earth, they must understand and love it. A gift to Life Lab connects 500,000 children each year across the nation to the natural world, and allows them to discover their potential to care for it. YOU can influence change today by supporting Life Lab’s work.

www.lifelab.org/donate

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

“Kids participated in garden lessons right before recess. Once recess began, however, they didn’t want to leave the garden! They thought it was better than recess!” ~1st Grade Teacher & Garden Champion at a Santa Cruz County school

This #GivingTuesday, join us in sharing joy and curiosity with thousands of children.

www.lifelab.org/donate

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

Last school year, Life Lab’s Santa Cruz County programs served:
-5,193 students
-over 900 lessons
-143 teachers’ classes
-37 schools

This #GivingTuesday, help ensure we can offer these hands-on, life-changing programs to children regardless of what they can pay.

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

“I love making the rainbow smoothie. It had something new for me–that was the spinach. I made it at home. I love it and my mom made something new!”

~ Amesti Elementary School 4th Grader as part of our Kids Cook program

Your gift today helps us offer 70% of our garden-based programs FREE to children whose families/schools could not otherwise afford them.

www.lifelab.org/donate

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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