.How Life Lab Pioneered the Garden Classroom

The setting is irresistible. Fragrant with herbs, flowers and rich soil, the Life Lab Garden is tucked into a few vibrant acres next to the UCSC Center for Agroecology’s hilltop farm overlooking the Monterey Bay.

From every spot on this effectively designed outdoor learning arena, you can inhale the Earth and see the ocean. Chickens curious about human animals strut around their palatial enclosure, ready to be held and admired by visiting children. Ten-foot-tall sunflowers tower over young visitors from local schools, who come to learn the fundamentals of air, soil, water, and how plants grow during field trips.

What happens here is highly interactive learning, perfumed by the aromas of well-cultivated gardens. This is the root of the influential Life Lab program, which has now spread to blooming classrooms throughout Santa Cruz County, Pajaro Valley and the entire country. In garden classrooms at their own schools, youngsters in grades K-5 learn garden-based science, cooking and nutrition—dynamic skills to fuel a lifetime of environmental literacy, healthy eating and love of nature. In alliance with Next Generation science strategies, the Life Lab-initiated garden classrooms prepare young people for careers in the sciences, growing the future.

Since the program began at Green Acres School in 1979, Life Lab has hosted thousands of local school children, who as adults have brought their own children to the site near the UCSC Farm and Garden for summer camp programs and nature visits. The vigorous immediacy of the Life Lab project has changed lives, and this year it celebrates 40 years of inviting children into the garden.

The Garden

Visitors enter the Life Lab garden through the Louise Cain Gatehouse, renovated into a functional meeting space that preserves the old stonework footprint. School field trips—over 2,500 kids from 50 schools each year—bring children up for a welcome meet-and-greet at the shady amphitheater just up the trail, before they head out to explore the bee hives, orchards and herb beds beyond.

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Don Burgett, Life Lab’s executive director, gives me a quick tour. He’s been with LifeLab for eight years, and before that was development director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Burgett, like most of the Life Lab team, came to his work through the Center for Agroecology at UCSC’s Farm and Garden. “That’s how we can serve these kids,” he says. “With our resident staff, who train dozens of interns each year up here. It’s an introductory activity—a bit of hands-on science education.”

A stand of huge favas in full bloom shelters a circular seating area. In one sitting, young visitors can learn about cover crops, as well as the ingredients for a tasty dish of pasta.

At another gathering spot, they’ll learn the six major plant parts—horticultural STEM, where they will discuss and draw plants, or even dress up in costumes of their favorites.

“We’ve started inviting stories from past Life Lab visitors,” Burgett says. “We’re beginning to track the kids who have come through the program through multiple generations. Many who come up to visit are the children of people who were camp kids themselves during the summers. This whole place is about the love of learning.”

OUTSIDE INFLUENCES An aerial view of the Life Lab Garden Classroom on the grounds of the UCSC Farm and Garden.
OUTSIDE INFLUENCES An aerial view of the Life Lab Garden Classroom on the grounds of the UCSC Farm and Garden.

We come to a miniature apple orchard. Various learning stations dot the garden; most are circular in design, so that children can gather around a central leader or exchange ideas easily among themselves. A weather station with ways to measure temperature and wind sits next to a pond and a tunnel arbor for birdwatching.

“In fall, it’s very farm-to-table,” Burgett continues. “They visit the apple orchard, pick some fruit, then press it into cider they can make and enjoy. There’s a corn station in the kitchen where they learn how to make and grind masa into tortillas. Then make a garden-foraged salsa. They even make their own butter. In winter, nutrition is the focus—herbs, roots, chards.”

From chickens to compost is an easy conceptual transition, as is using a berry patch as a source for making fresh-fruit popsicles.

I’m dazzled by the intimate scale of this ingeniously equipped garden classroom—a thought-provoking Disneyland for children who might not have their own home gardens or easy access to the cycles of nature.

We move up into a small showpiece orchard. “The field trips then break into three smaller groups, led by interns,” Burgett says, and smiles. “It’s all about the magic of transformation.”

Organic Development

The newest addition to Life Lab’s strategic plan is brand-new Co-Executive Director Judit Camacho. “Her children had formative experiences in our programs,” Burgett notes, “and Judit brings a wealth of experience as a nonprofit executive director to our work.”  

Camacho comes on board with deep roots in Santa Cruz County as a math major at UCSC. Her grooming through leadership programs led to her work as executive director of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at UCSC. Returning to Santa Cruz after a six-year family hiatus in Guadalajara, Camacho joined the leadership of Life Lab.

LEARNING CLIMATE The Life Lab curriculum encourages kids to think about biology and the Earth’s ecosystems.
LEARNING CLIMATE The Life Lab curriculum encourages kids to think about biology and the Earth’s ecosystems.

Camacho’s own children went through the Life Lab program, as students and then as interns, and her dream is for all children to participate in extraordinary programs like Life Lab. “I believe in the level of attention they get here, the happiness they feel, their minds just bloom,” she says. Camacho’s skills will be put to the test as development director, with Life Lab funding her primary challenge. “All students need space to dream. I’d like to see the garden classroom be part of the culture of every school. Learning where food comes from, how to care for the earth.”

Camacho is an advocate of Life Lab’s concept of garden classrooms within elementary schools. “There were always field trips, off-site experiences with school groups. But it’s such a critical thing to have gardens on the school property, where they have access to it all the time. During recess they love to go out and check on the garden.”

The main garden at UCSC and the school gardens feed into each other. “When they’re here at our Life Lab garden, young children can see themselves in new ways, and see themselves as scientists,” Camacho says. “They’re learning how to think about the Earth and biology. This is where it begins.”

Kathleen Mitani, assistant principal at Watsonville’s T.S. MacQuiddy Elementary School, sees the program as a valuable opportunity for students.

“Everyone is raving about the Life Lab garden classes,” Mitani says. “The lessons were accessible. Can’t tell you all how excited and appreciative that we have this program at MacQuiddy this year.”

With the addition of Camacho, Burgett believes, “We will be able to expand our reach and go deeper with our mission.” 

Camacho’s energy is infectious. “There is a lot to do here,” she says.

The Vision

The motto says it all: Life Lab cultivates children’s love of learning, healthy food and nature through garden-based education. Founded in 1979 in Live Oak, the Life Lab office trailer became a tenant of the University in 1988. A model teaching garden—a classroom in a garden—was built in 2000.

“We are separate from the university, but were always connected with the farm,” says Burgett. “That was the big strategic theme.”

The view of the Monterey Bay glistening in the distance was instrumental in sweetening the recipe. “We established gardens with schools, and by the late ’80s these programs were getting state and federal attention, such as National Science Foundation grants for a curriculum developed for K-5 Life Lab sciences,” says Burgett. “The next step was to disseminate the model. We offered workshops for educators and have trainers all over the country.”

In the 1990s, momentum grew.  “There was a ‘share it with the world’ expansion of the Life Lab concept,” Burgett says, “but that tapered when policies shifted in the 2000s. We planted seeds—not all took. So we contracted in size, ramped up here and shifted focus back to the local garden classroom.”

The current plan includes serving 4,000 Pajaro Valley Unified School District students year-round in the coming school year in nearly half of all district elementary schools (7 of 16), and more than 6,000 children total across Santa Cruz County.

“Students of today need to have a positive relationship and connection with nature to help them care for the environment,” says Kevin Beck, a second-grade teacher at Watsonville’s Starlight Elementary School. “This program is a huge piece to building that connection.”

Team Effort

Handling two major thrusts of Life Lab’s mission—teacher training and curriculum building—are Burgett’s colleagues Whitney Cohen and John Fisher. “The demand for our program was insane.” recalls Cohen, Life Lab’s education director and teacher training coordinator. Cohen designs the Life Lab curriculum, leads educator workshops nationwide and works with field administrators to design lesson plans for each school as templates throughout the country.

“In the past six years, we’ve renewed our focus on the Pajaro Valley. We work in seven elementary schools. And we designed a two-acre Blooming Classroom in Watsonville with paid garden coordinators in some schools. Parcel tax provides pretty solid support here in Santa Cruz,” says Cohen. “We have to create a culture that includes this garden classroom. Life Lab educators are helping the teachers sustain, not simply start up, the gardens.” 

As Burgett notes, “You have to build a culture first. You can’t simply gift a garden and expect it to perpetuate itself.”

One of the original builders of the garden classroom, John Fisher developed programming for children and UCSC interns, and is now the director of programs and partnerships, focusing on sharing Life Lab models across the state and country. As outreach coordinator for the school garden support organization, his job is to build a broader network.

“We constantly work on how to better sustain these gardens. We now have a national forum, webinars and leadership institutes. We train trainers,” says Fisher, who like everyone involved in Life Lab has a science degree, spent time as a grower here and abroad, and apprenticed with the UCSC Agroecology program.

“We explore ways to support best practices for our participants’ own regions—Hawaii vs. South Dakota, for example,” he says.

The Life Lab model has been borrowed, imitated, modified, and replanted across the country, he tells me, by groups like Edible Schoolyard, KidsGardening, FoodCorps, and Big Green.

The internship program for teens and undergraduates trains the next generation of Life Lab educators. “Over 80 come here each year, and then continue to work in other blooming classrooms,” says Fisher. “They learn to develop lessons, learn how to connect with children, and work with them. Reconnecting with our roots is the whole project.”

TEACHING ASSISTANTS Life Lab co-directors Judit Camacho and Don Burgett.
TEACHING ASSISTANTS Life Lab co-directors Judit Camacho and Don Burgett.

Garden classroom expenses run close to $200,000 annually, half of that camp-related, the rest in field-trip costs. Since 2015, most of the funding has been private.

“LifeLab does not receive any local public funds,” says Burgett. “New major commitments amounting to $1 million over three years have allowed the project to hire three new staff and expand national outreach.” But more is needed.

Life Lab’s garden classroom finds support in other ways as well. Carolyn Rudolph, owner of Charlie Hong Kong restaurant, donates all the food for intern training.

“Kids come and cook with us, and learn about vegetables every year. I would always ask the Life Lab kids to come. They would show up, and we’d all dress up as vegetables,” Rudolph recalls. “Then I found out that they were paying for lunches during their teacher training period. So I said we would donate lunch.”

Rudolph, who takes her granddaughters up to visits at the Life Lab garden, also takes her management team and lunch organizers up to visit.

“Eating healthy should be a birthright, not reserved for people who can afford to pay high prices for food,” she says. 

The Next Generation

As coordinator for the Watsonville School Garden Programs, Aisling Mitchell manages interns and develops lesson plans for seven elementary schools. A native of Ireland, Mitchell got her degree in Biology at UCSC and worked through UCSC’s Agroecology program before serving with Food Corps in Oakland and Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project.

Mitchell and I met at the garden classroom of Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville, joined by 24 rambunctious second graders.  Once they got settled at three picnic tables in the shade of an oak tree, the children listened as Mitchell asked them about the seeds they find in the garden.

“This is hands-on, inquiry-based science,” she explains to me. “They’re not learning facts. They’re learning how to ask questions. We use the five-E method: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate.” 

Kindergarten classes learn the basics about sun, soil, air, and water, she says. They’ll come out into the garden from K-2nd grade in fall and spring, and then in cooking and nutrition classes, 3rd-5th grades, during the winters.

“This garden is a classroom,” Mitchell reminds me. “It’s not a planting garden.” Even so, the cherry tomato vines are bursting with ripe fruit, the sunflowers tall, and basil and fennel perfume the warm air.

A classroom teacher had come out with the little ones, partly to help keep everybody focused, and partly to see what the kids are learning in the garden. Mitchell is responsible for what’s learned in the school gardens: “I recruit, hire, train, and develop curriculum,” she says.

Life Lab has partnered with Watsonville schools, and thanks to a generous flower grower, now has land on which it has started a 2-acre blooming classroom close to Pajaro Valley schools.

“I have a challenge for you today,” Mitchell announces. “Close your eyes and think of all the ways that humans travel.” The kids squirm with excitement. They close their eyes. “Now turn to the person on your right, and tell them your answer.” Next she invites them to share and writes their answers on the board.

Mitchell then asks the children how seeds get from one place to another, and as they raise their hands, eager to answer, she writes down their responses. Each picnic table is equipped with brightly colored markers and paper for the children draw and label seeds.  

“It’s got an academic core. This is not an extra recess,” she says. “The children learn about caring for the Earth. And there are lots of perks–it’s fun, and the children get to be outdoors. We let the kids know that this is an organic garden, and what that means.”

There’s also a strong focus on literacy and English instruction. Mitchell writes the questions and the children’s answers on the large newsprint pad.

Next, they think about how seeds travel. Mitchell encourages them to make connections. You can practically watch the lightbulbs turn on in each 7-year-old head as they draw the different varieties of seeds she distributes. Absorbed in coloring, the children produce drawings that are inventive, wild, silly, and overflowing with energy. Soon their 45-minute visit to this Life Lab blooming classroom will be over. But these lessons will stay with them for a lifetime.

Celebrate 40 years of the Life Lab program on Sept. 29, at the UCSC Farm, as part of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) Harvest Festival. Life Lab will host family-oriented activities and a cake cutting. Help them blow out the candles, 12:30-5pm. The 40th Gala Dinner is at Hotel Paradox on Sunday, Oct. 13. lifelab.org/event/40th-birthday-celebration.



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