Children race in potato sacks, identify leaves and vegetables and embark on a "farm scavenger hunt" among the yellow bush beans, snap peas and purple heirloom tomatoes. All would be typical of a crisp October at a farm, except that this farm happens to be smack in the Financial District in downtown Manhattan.
This small, organic farm began in April 2011 when a group of students at Millennium High School
asked permission to start growing a plot of vegetables. The Battery Conservancy thought it would be a great idea and they were soon breaking ground on the almost-one-acre farm. The farm grows 80 varieties of vegetables and is constructed in the shape of Zelda
, the famous resident turkey.
The farm serves 680 students from kindergarten through 12th grade who visit the farm to tend to their berms. The crops are either brought back to school so the children can learn to cook with the vegetables that they grew, or they are sold to the community at a donation-only farm stand feet away from the space where they were grown.
This scale of hyper-local and community-based gardening is new to Manhattan — and perhaps may prove to be instrumental in the students' development in relation to their world.
"What these students stand to gain from this experience is huge, but also incredibly difficult to quantify," Urban Farm Coordinator Lauren Kaplan explains. "You never know what's ultimately going to end up be a pivotal moment in a child's development."
Currently, more than 80 percent
of the environmental information that children receive is from the media. For most adults, that is how they get all of their information. At the Urban Farm at the Battery, these children are getting a unique, first-hand education in agriculture.
Why nature + humans = good
The late Paul Shepard, a professor of natural philosphy and human ecology, wrote that contemporary urban industrial cultures stinted human emotional maturation. He wrote, "human[s] evolved in a context in which life was characterized by connection to nature and everyday experience was inextricable from the larger rhythms and patterns of the natural world". The modern society/environment was breaking down a sense of self in childhood and did not cultivate a sense of growth and development around nature.
Shepard lamented the absence of the nature-connected ritualistic transitions through developmental stages that are typical in cultures living in harmony with their environment. A good example of a ritualistic transition could be a camping trip for scouts or hiking a special mountain each year to mark progress. It could even be experiencing the life cycle from seed, to plant, to vegetable, to consumption, to compost. Those experiences breed a sense of connection with nature and a sense of self-satisfaction with a physical feeling of achievement.
So why is a connection to nature important in our
society? A 2004 study of college students
concluded that individuals' attitudes toward nature and environmental ethics seem to stem from their belief that they are part of nature. If they believe that they are connected to nature's cycles, they will inherently be more proactive in their environmental ethics and conversation. How crucial is this in our current environmental crisis? It is important that children connect to nature early, as a 2003 study revealed
that children's view of their nature connection is "both complete and under construction" during early childhood.
For urban children who do not get the experience of a back yard or woods to play in, simply connecting to the planet through a vegetable plot in their park could prove quite influential. Urban Farm Coordinator Kaplan says it best, "Will most of these kids go on to become farmers? No, not necessarily — just like most kids that learn to play an instrument won't go on to become professional musicians. But I think it's safe to say that this farm is offering a singularly unique experience; one that will enrich the lives of hundreds of students who would otherwise not have had this experience available to them. That's huge."