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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12 hours ago

Life Lab

Join us for Life Lab’s Annual Benefit Brunch! Complimentary delicious meal and an inspiring program. 😋

Event is complimentary, and we hope to inspire you to make a meaningful donation toward growing healthy children! 🌱

Sunday, May 19th // 11am-1:30pm // MacQuiddy Elementary, Watsonville

Register Here
www.lifelab.org/brunch See MoreSee Less

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17 hours ago

Life Lab

Be part of our Garden Classroom workshops. Join educators from all over the country and possibly from around the world. Continual Education Credit is available for most of our workshops.

Register today! bit.ly/2V9iToG See MoreSee Less

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6 days ago

Life Lab

It was an absolute pleasure working with such a stellar group of educators. Thank you all for the great work you are doing at MDUSD Science and Garden Education Program.

We look forward to working with you in the near future."This is the best day of work EVER!" -Direct quote from a teacher participant in yesterday’s "NGSS in the Garden" workshop at Sun Terrace Elementary by Life Lab. Whitney Cohen led classroom teachers from 6 different elementary schools in an amazing, in-depth training on how to implement the new Next Generation Science Standards in that tried-and-true method of "learning by doing". On the agenda were 3 sample lessons, lots more demoed garden activities, debriefs with deep dives into the 3 strands of the NGSS, and practical exercises on how to plan new lessons using the 5E’s and how to "NGSS-ify" existing science lessons. What a day!

Out heartfelt thanks to Battery Powered for making this workshop possible! See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

PSSST!!! Keep this between us but we still have very limited spaces for our Garden Sprouts Camp for 4-6 year olds. Spaces are filling up fast.

More details and registration at www.lifelab.org/camp/ See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

🌱Moment of the Month🌱

We hosted a gathering of Central Coast school garden educators and allies in March at Life Lab’s birthplace, Green Acres Elementary School in Live Oak. It was great to see old and new friends there and share updates from many local school garden programs.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news including the moment of the month! See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

Our friends at the Children & Nature Network are hosting the 2019 Children & Nature Network International Conference in Oakland, California, May 16-18, 2019. We’ll be there — and we hope you’ll join us at this premier gathering of leaders, advocates and activists from the children and nature movement. You’ll be inspired by three days of powerful keynotes, expertly-curated workshops, field trips and events designed to support the work you do to connect children, families and communities to nature. Help spread the word and get the conversation going at #CNC2019. See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

Life Lab is turning 40 this year! There is nothing that would make us happier than to reconnect with you.

🌱Have you attended a Life Lab summer camp or field trip?

🐞Are you a past intern?

🍏Have we made a meaningful difference in your life?

If so, please share your story by using #MyLifeLab or email us at manny@lifelab.org. We would love to share your stories with the world! See MoreSee Less

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3 weeks ago

Life Lab

Come explore the garden and farm with us! Our camp days will include harvesting, making garden snacks, exploring the farm, singing, storytelling, garden caretaking, garden crafts, and investigation of the natural world. This camp serves 24 campers with a 1:6 ratio of instructors to campers, allowing us to tailor camp activities to the ages and interests of our campers.

Hurry, limited spaces are filling fast! Most slots are taken. We only have Tues/Thurs available for 4-6 year olds. ALL other ages are filled. For more info and register click here bit.ly/2FC277X?platform=hootsuite&utm_campaign=HSCampaign . For questions contact Amy at (831)-459-4035 or email amy@lifellab.org See MoreSee Less

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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