A Lasting Harvest: A Century of Children’s Education at BBG

Children's Garden Open House
Participants in the summer Children's Garden classes share some of their harvest and show off projects to family and friends. Photo by Sarah Schmidt.

Behind the white picket fence at the southern end of BBG, something is happening. In the foreground, some children are raking straw. Off to the side, others are trundling wheelbarrows full of mulch, and over there, a trio are peeking under a fabric row cover. Beyond the garden beds, groups of kids sit at picnic tables, colorful jackets and lunch bags hung behind them, intently crafting signs, collaborating on organizing packets of seeds, and laughing as they call out names of plants. Apart from a few youthful instructors and a parent or two hovering on this side of the fence, this is an adult-free zone.

You’re looking at the Children’s Garden, the pride of BBG.

In this special place, over the past hundred years, thousands of young people have tended plots, harvested vegetables, and picked flowers for study. More than one family has participated over generations.

Talk with someone who has been through these gates, and they’ll express a deep and enduring affection for their experience. Alumni credit it for sparking their careers in the sciences or education, or simply for fostering a greater appreciation of the natural world. Through the work of the individuals it influenced, BBG’s Children’s Garden has helped shape the city we live in today—at least the green parts.

An Extraordinary Idea

BBG’s founding director, Dr. Charles Stuart Gager, had a vision. Well before this was a given, he believed that a botanical institution could do important work in both research and display and at the same time connect with its local community through a popular program of education. This was a particularly important goal at that moment. Brooklyn, like most American cities, had seen its population explode. Most residents of this formerly agrarian borough now lived in tenements and had no yards or gardens of their own. In 1914, just a few years after the Garden opened to the public, Gager hired a seasoned educator to start a program for children and teachers.

Ellen Eddy Shaw had originally studied medicine, but chance led her to a job teaching nature study to elementary and high school students. Soon she was supervising a number of garden-based programs around the country, lecturing for the New York State Department of Education, training teachers in her methods, and publishing a gardening column for children in a national magazine. After she came to New York to design a program (and build a rooftop greenhouse) for the Ethical Culture School on Central Park and train kindergarten teachers at Pratt, she was recruited by Dr. Gager and settled at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where she served as curator of Elementary Instruction until her retirement in 1945.

Miss Shaw’s approach to nature study stemmed from the practice of school gardens in Europe that had been reflected in the U.S. as part of the “Normal School” tradition of the 19th century. The tradition featured active learning environments where children acquire knowledge through hands-on experimentation.

What was extraordinary at the time was to create such a program at a botanic garden. And while the primary objective of the program was, as Dr. Gager explained, to “enlist the sympathetic interest in children of plant life,” Shaw was just as interested in seeing her children grow into productive adults.

Miss Shaw’s Garden

Then, as today, the main activity of the children was to grow vegetables. Children accepted into the program paid a modest fee for a share of a plot, which they tended with a partner after school and over the summer. The children created their planting plan, selected their varieties, started plants in the greenhouses, then planted, cultivated, and harvested their crops.

Surrounding the plots were flower borders, large-area crops, experimental beds, and study areas. Lessons in botany, scientific experimentation, cooking, and care of tools were part of the daily activities. Older children worked with Garden staff on the grounds and assisted with research or were hired on as “house boy” or “house girl,” with specific Children’s Garden responsibilities. In its earliest days, the program was operated along the lines of a boys and girls club, then popular. BBG benefactor Alfred T. White sponsored annual awards for the children, and Shaw designed an elaborate system of incentives: buttons, badges, pins, cups, and even an annual scholarship to Cornell. A child received a bronze medal for completing the program; a silver one if he or she had incorporated a research project. Children who were particularly helpful and pleasant might receive a gold honor pin.

The prizes extended beyond the 300 children in the Children’s Garden club. School groups that completed projects received silver cups. And throughout Brooklyn, children could earn prizes for the best roof garden, best box display, best bunch of flowers, best weed display, and best specimens of 36 kinds of flowers and vegetables.

Growing Good Citizens

The point of all these prizes was twofold: to demonstrate that gardening was important work and to foster a drive for individual achievement and pride in one’s conduct. Shaw practiced a sort of tough love: She wanted students to enjoy themselves, but she insisted on a certain level of intellectual rigor and appropriate behavior.

Much as they learn about nature by putting their hands in the soil, children learn about responsibility and cooperation by working together on projects and following the example of older students. As older students teach younger ones, they model how the younger participants may teach their family and friends. And so the lessons of the Children’s Garden take root.

The Children’s Garden Today

Though the central tenets and activities remain, much has changed in today’s Children’s Garden. A greater number of children, across a broader range of ages, participate each year in a number of specialized programs. The role of older children has been formalized as the Garden Apprentice Program, and Project Green Reach brings the lessons of the Children’s Garden to some of Brooklyn’s most challenged elementary and middle schools. With the Prospect Park Alliance and the New York City Department of Education, BBG helped launch Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE).

BBG’s Discovery program, created in the 1990s, complements the Children’s Garden by allowing all young visitors to explore nature firsthand through workshops, scavenger hunts, and other activities. Next year, BBG will open a reimagined and significantly expanded Discovery Garden that will offer fresh and exciting nature experiences for families and groups.

Perhaps even more important, BBG’s Children’s Garden has served as the model for similar programs around the world. As in Miss Shaw’s day, BBG educators continue to train and mentor teachers who bring the lessons of the Children’s Garden back to their own communities. Yet though the Children’s Garden is known internationally, it remains a program for local children, who each year experience the miracle of watching life spark from a seed they have planted.


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