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Ryan Parker is the FoodCorps impact and partnerships lead in Maine, a member of the RSU 19 school board, and a former staff member for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Science is showing what many know — kids learn best by doing. LD 1682, An Act to Create the Maine Experiential Education Program, creates opportunities for kids to increase academic performance, improve health outcomes and behavior. Most educators, and nearly all children, want experiential learning but lack capacity and training.
Maine school staff are operating at maximum capacity. Adding anything is difficult. Additionally, experiential learning is different from classroom learning, requiring more preparation, unique materials, the ability to manage kids in fluctuating settings, none of which teachers are traditionally trained on, and requires unique infrastructure.
Maine schools received federal COVID relief funds, which had to be used to increase space between students, lower surface contamination and increase ventilation. The easiest way to do this? Take them outside. Schools throughout Maine built hoop houses, greenhouses, gardens and learning pavilions. Many schools combined this new infrastructure with the robust support provided by national organizations like FoodCorps, which partners with schools in 13 states, including Maine.
LD 1682 makes this experiential learning regular learning, with good policy. Unlike some laws related to schools, LD 1682 is not a mandate. Rather, it creates a voluntary program to which schools and districts could apply. Also, unlike one-time injections to stimulate new programs, LD 1682 would create sustained partnerships, helping schools over multiple years while, at the same time, gradually transferring financial responsibility of their programs to the schools themselves. This builds self-sustaining programs. Teaching someone to fish is better than giving them fish.
Finally, the bill expands experiential learning in the areas that already have the most robust professional development, lessons, curriculum and are proven avenues to stimulate student learning, health and development. Namely, school gardens and food education. Most of what already exists for experiential learning in Maine schools takes place in school gardens. While some of the students who go through these programs will grow up to become Maine’s next generation of farmers, the biggest value of experiential learning in school gardens is that it enhances regular curriculum.
For some students, you can explain how to calculate area and volume until you’re blue in the face, and they won’t be able to understand it, no matter how many books they read or worksheets they do. Get them to a school’s raised bed marked with a square-foot gardening grid and they will understand instantly. Teachers often report the best writing their students do happens in the garden.
Experiential learning deepens connection to art, science and history curriculum. Medomak Valley’s Neil Lash has created an arboretum where students learn about the Civil War. The lessons learned through doing are learned better. Beyond academics, experiential learning has other benefits for individuals and society.
A FoodCorps/Columbia University study, and others, found students with 10 hours of hands-on learning in a year consumed three times as many fruits and vegetables as peers who did not receive hands-on education. This results in measurably healthier schools. Schools with robust garden programs often attract strong school nutrition directors who prioritize student grown and Maine products. This increases school meal participation, the biggest driver of school nutrition revenue, while increasing physical and mental health.
Stress and anxiety levels have increased 25 percent worldwide since the pandemic. This is especially true in schools. But a recent review of global scientific studies found experiential learning, particularly in school gardens, has a direct positive impact on student mental health and social ability. Specifically, “all indicators showed highly significant differences … when comparing SG groups with indoor classroom groups.” The differences in question included reduced stress, anxiety, and increase in the ability to communicate appropriately. Principals in FoodCorps partner schools report decreases in behavioral referrals to the office for students that learn in school gardens compared to those who don’t.
Maine should pass LD 1682 to make experiential learning regular learning, so every kid can make deep connections in reading, writing and arithmetic while gaining real world, practical skills.