Our experience has shown us that the garden is fertile ground for social and emotional learning. The children in the Intergenerational Landed Learning Project (ILLP) build strong bonds with small peer groups and adult mentors, build confidence, and learn about themselves and the natural world. Still, we wondered how to bring these teachings to the fore. How does the garden support social and emotional learning? How can we build within our program a practice of mindfulness?
Two graduate students, Margarita Endara & Martha Bonilla, completed practica in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) with us. This was a rich experience for all involved. Although Landed Learning was a non-traditional practicum placement (was not already running an explicit SEL program), the students immediately reported ways that garden-based learning experiences in general, and ILLP specifically, cultivate social and emotional growth.
Martha Bonilla reflected on existing SEL elements within the ILLP:
- the power of metaphors and analogies (such as garden transformations reflecting personal transformation)
- development of healthy and supportive learning climate
- creation of inclusive and caring groups
- focus on care for the Earth, for community, and for our selves (mind, body, emotions)
- expressions of gratitude and giving thanks
The team introduced Mood Meters, a colour-coded mood chart that could be used as a quick check-in tool for groups and to build our mood vocabulary. The Mood Meter is a tool developed by Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence for the RULER program. For more information, visit http://ei.yale.edu/ruler/ We found this a very useful resource.
They also created a SEL Mindfulness Activities resource, aligning activities with each visit. While we did not have time to use every activity, we did incorporate many of the activities and found them powerful in raising student awareness of their own experiences. When we brought attention to eating mindfully, students experienced a strawberry with all of their senses. When we embodied a sprouting seed, one student did not “sprout”. He later told volunteers that it’s because he “wasn’t viable”. It was an important insight into a high-energy and seemingly-disengaged child who felt he could do nothing right. This insight helped the adults working with him reflect his strengths back to him. At the end of the year, this young student spoke from the heart about his struggles and how he feels accepted here.
Another activity we found powerful was Back to Back Breathing, aligned with our Pollination visit in which students visit a honeybee hive. This day is often filled with great anticipation and often some apprehension. Before heading to the beehives, the students and adult mentors sat back to back with eyes closed, feeling their partner’s breathing and eventually trying to match the breathing. This activity totally shifted the energy of the group and gave them a tool they could return to (focusing on breathing) if they felt anxious as they approached the bees.
Many of the mindfulness activities suggested here had a strong social and emotional focus and often brought attention inward. Mindfulness can also be brought into our outward experiences in the garden. Mindful tasting is an example of this, but we can also hone our observation skills, sharpen our listening, build vocabulary, and inspire art and writing through mindful observations in the garden. Quiet observation can start with short 1-minute sitting sessions and build into longer 5-15 minute sessions as the observation skill is strengthened. There are many activities that can draw students attention to specific elements in the garden that might otherwise be missed, enrich their experience, and serve as prompts or hooks for extended learning experiences (writing, research, etc..). Here are a few:
-Scene scanning: Face north. Slowly scan the scene in front of you, left to right, top to bottom, noticing what the scene looks like, but also how it feels (warmth on your skin, etc), and even open your mouth to notice how the air tastes. Now turn 90 degrees to the right to face the east and repeat the scanning process. Continue to turn 90 degrees to face the south and then the west, scanning each time. Reflect on what was observed and differences in each direction.
-Adopt a plant: Observe this plant once a week for 5 minutes. Document its changes in drawing, writing, photography, and/or measurements.
-Soundscape: Listen for one minute silently. Have each child reproduce a sound they heard and then create a group soundscape with all the sounds. Notice how many are nature-made and how many are man-made
-Sound mapping: Sit quietly for 3-5 minutes. Use symbols to map out the different sounds you hear and where you hear them in the garden.
-Sound walk: Walk silently from one location to another. Bring attention back to sounds as the mind wanders. At your destination, reflect on the sounds heard or write a poem with those sounds.
-Plant ID by touch: Give each child a leaf in an opaque bag or box. Have them use their hands only to get to know the plant. They should touch with one hand and draw the plant with another. Students can switch bags, numbering each drawing with a corresponding number on the bag, to draw more than one leaf. In the end put all leaves on a table and see if students can find their bag.
-Blind tree walk: Working in pairs in a forested area, have one student cover or close their eyes. Sighted students will carefully (using sighted guide technique) guide their partner to a tree. The partner with eyes covered will observe the tree with their hands and nose, getting as much information as they safely can. The sighted partner will then carefully return both to their starting point. The partner with eyes covered will uncover their eyes and try to identify the tree they observed.
-Sensory scavenger hunt: Create a scavenger hunt that has students search for specific smells (minty, oniony, lemony), textures (fuzzy, slimy, smooth, rough), or colours (red, purple, stripes).
By graduate students, Margarita Endara & Martha Bonilla