Life Lab: From 1979 to 2059

Founded, very appropriately, at Green Acres Elementary School in Santa Cruz, CA, in 1979, Life Lab is a long-time leader in the modern school garden movement. In its early years, Life Lab helped schools on California’s Central Coast develop dynamic garden classrooms and fostered a culture of garden-based learning in the region. From the outset, the organization focused on an integrated array of goals, using gardens for inspiring hands-on learning in core academic subjects, especially science, for food systems and nutrition education, and to help young children connect with the natural world. Outdoor classrooms and inquiry-based activities also proved powerful catalysts for social-emotional learning and overall student wellbeing.

Early Success and Expansion

In 1982 Life Lab published the first edition of its seminal guide for educators, The Growing Classroom, handwritten and hand illustrated. As more and more schools in the region grew garden classroom programs and documented the positive impacts on their students, state and federal institutions took note. In 1987 the US Department of Education chose Life Lab as a model program and funded its dissemination through the National Diffusion Network, sending Life Lab staff to 38 states and territories to share its knowledge and resources with teachers. In the same year, the National Science Foundation supported the development of a Life Lab Science curriculum for K-5 elementary schools. By 1996 Life Lab Science was in use throughout the country, and Life Lab staff had trained tens of thousands of educators across the U.S. in the effective use of garden classrooms. The Growing Classroom activity guide, now published nationally, was in high demand, too, and becoming a resource for schools and educators in other countries, as well.

From 1995 to 2001, the National Science Foundation funded a new regional Life Lab project: Language Acquisition in Science Education at Rural Schools (LASERS), working with seven Central California school districts to improve science teaching practices for second language learners. Peer-reviewed research from the project showed significant literacy gains for English language learners through hands-on, garden-based science programs, highlighting another enduring benefit of garden classrooms: their accessibility and efficacy for a wide range of learning styles. Students who do well in traditional classroom environments also do well in gardens, while those who sometimes struggle in standard classrooms often thrive in the multi-sensory, dynamic natural environment of a garden classroom.  

The Garden Classroom and New Local Programs

Education policy and funding took a sharp turn in the early 2000s with the advent of No Child Left Behind and more test-focused teaching. Having just built its model Garden Classroom on the organic farm at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where it had been a nonprofit partner with the university’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems for many years, Life Lab again focused on local programs. The Garden Classroom became an exciting field trip venue for local schools, with K-5 students sharing inspiring science, nutrition, and environmental learning experiences on a beautiful working farm overlooking the Monterey Bay. Soon every weekday saw a field trip during the school year, and Life Lab was inspiring thousands of children each year while also training and mentoring undergraduate interns to become the next generation of garden educators. During the summer, local children age 4 to 14 had even deeper experiences with the land, healthy eating, and the natural world through day camp programs that today serve more than 300 kids each season.

Since 2000, Life Lab has also worked with local schools on waste reduction through composting lessons for kids and systems for schools through its Waste-Free Schools program, incubated the award-winning teen youth empowerment program, Food What?! (now its own nonprofit), and continued a focus on English language learners through its Avance program. In 2006 Life Lab co-founded the California School Garden Network as an online forum for garden educators to share best practices and resources. With support from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA from 2008 to 2014, Life Lab staff partnered with colleagues at UC Davis and the San Diego Resource Conservation District to deliver workshops around the state for more than 2,000 educators on creating and sustaining school gardens, garden-enhanced nutrition education, making fresh fruits and vegetables exciting to children, and effective peer training methods through a “train-the-trainer” model.

Growing Outward Again

Over the past decade, Life Lab’s national programs have grown significantly again, as education policy and new Common Core and Next Generation Science standards have returned to emphasizing the benefits of hands-on, experiential, collaborative learning. Demand for Life Lab educator workshops has grown as teachers sought garden lessons and teaching techniques to fit the new standards, which Life Lab cross-mapped to its curriculum guides. In 2013 Life Lab co-founded and co-hosted the California FoodCorps program with FoodCorps and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, bringing new Americorps resources to school garden and healthy eating programs across the state. Its FoodCorps partnership extended to long-term collaboration nationally, as well, with senior Life Lab staff serving as pre-service trainers for all FoodCorps service members each summer (250 annually now, working in 18 states) and as curriculum partners for FoodCorps’s education team. With increasing trainings at its Garden Classroom and across the country, In 2014 Life Lab co-hosted the Growing School Gardens online learning community on edWeb.net with the National Farm to School Network and the Edible Schoolyard Project, and a Life Lab webinar on “Common Core in the Garden” attracted 658 live participants and more than 700 additional viewers of the archived presentation. Life Lab has trained more than 1,000 educators in person annually in recent years, with participants reporting that they serve a total of more than 500,000 students annually.

SGSO Leadership and Collaboration

While celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2009, Life Lab hosted a gathering of School Garden Support Organizations, or “SGSOs,” to talk about successful models and challenges facing organizations that support multiple school gardens in their community or region. Four years later, in 2013, Life Lab co-founded and begin facilitating the National School Garden Network with colleagues around the country, following discussion of the need for this at a national conference session that Life Lab was moderating. An all-volunteer collaborative, the Network had occasional conference calls and meet-ups until late 2016, when Life Lab, in partnership with Whole Kids Foundation, hosted its first national SGSO Leadership Institute, a weeklong training with 10 teams from newer SGSOs and several mentors and co-presenters from other experienced organizations. Follow-up with participants showed significant increases in their ability to serve children and teachers in their own regions through programs reaching more than 200,000 children.

January 2018 brought the second national SGSO Leadership Institute, with 52 representatives from 33 SGSO’s from 18 states and territories participating, and the January 2019 SGSO Leadership Institute included 55 professionals from 31 SGSO’s representing more than 7,500 school gardens. This program will continue annually through Whole Kids Foundation’s and Life Lab’s joint long-term commitment to it as a vital venue for deep-dive, collaborative work on key issues facing the garden-based learning movement and to helping newer SGSOs succeed. Through a new partnership between Life Lab and the Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation, this national collaborative conversation is expanding in exciting new ways, too, with the launch of a biennial national conference for SGSOs in 2021. For Life Lab, this work with SGSOs helps it continue to learn from colleagues new and old around the country while sharing its 40 years of experience and accumulated knowledge and resources with newer organizations working to bring garden classrooms and programs to children in communities across the country.

A Return to Local School Partnerships

Back home on the Central Coast, Life Lab has also shifted its local programs significantly since 2014 with the launch of its Pajaro Valley Initiative to provide support and programs for garden-based learning with Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) elementary school students in southern Santa Cruz County and northern Monterey County. While training others nationally on how to be a successful SGSO, Life Lab realized that it was not playing that role fully in its own community. Some of the schools in the region had succeeded in sustaining their garden classrooms from earlier years, but others had not after Life Lab’s focus and resources had shifted. At the same time, the organization noted that its Garden Classroom programs at the UCSC Farm were too far away to be accessible to PVUSD, which serves half of all students in Santa Cruz County, many of whom are part of families who grow fresh produce for the local community and the nation. Developing a second farm-based educational garden, the Blooming Classroom, in western Watsonville in 2014, allowed Life Lab to launch field trip programs for PVUSD classes, which soon became much-anticipated outings for the children, as a special place to explore and learn.

Following three years of initial relationship building with Watsonville schools and placement of FoodCorps members in them year-round, Life Lab deepened its partnership with five PVUSD elementary schools in 2017, piloting new Next Generation Science in the Garden lessons and curriculum in the fall and spring for grades K, 1 and 2 and Kids Cook lessons in winter with grades 3, 4 and 5. The response has been tremendous, with students inspired to learn, call themselves scientists, build language and critical thinking skills, eat new healthy foods, and connect with nature right on their school playgrounds. Teacher training and support, as well as frequent Life Lab model teaching with their students in upgraded garden classrooms, has increased the confidence of teachers to use their school gardens on their own, even when Life Lab staff are not there. In 2018-19 the programs had 100% teacher participation (more than 90 teachers), and the schools are developing a long-term culture of garden-based learning. In addition to growing to seven PVUSD partner schools for the 2019-2020 school year, Life Lab is working with district and community partners to develop a long-term funding model to ensure that these garden classrooms and programs continue to thrive for many years to come.

The Next 40 Years

These close partnerships with seven PVUSD schools represent the kind of relationship Life Lab aspires to have with all 40 public elementary schools in the 10 districts in its county as the region’s long-term SGSO. That growth from serving 6,000 young students now to 20,000 in the future and the sustainability of robust garden classroom programs integrated into the daily life and learning of these schools is the vital core of Life Lab’s local efforts now. This is also a core part of Life Lab’s ongoing learning, which it can share out with the rest of the country as it also brings the knowledge gained from its national work back to its local schools.

In 2018 Life Lab also began deeper work with the Mt. Diablo Unified School District east of the San Francisco Bay through a special partnership with two other nonprofits and the district. With 50 schools and 32,000 students in diverse communities across more than 100 square miles, this district has been a promising place to replicate core elements of Life Lab’s PVUSD programs, refine its new Next Generation Science in the Garden curriculum, and bring positive change to thousands more young children. This, too, is a learning environment for Life Lab staff, as models are tested and improved, brought back to PVUSD, and then shared with the nation.  

Over the past 40 years, Life Lab has trained and equipped teachers and in every state and in more than 20 countries for the effective use of garden classrooms to inspire a love of learning, healthy food, and nature. This work has brought positive opportunities to the lives of more than 10 million children, with a million more every two years now. Forty more years from now, in 2059, Life Lab will have succeeded if every school district in the U.S. understands the value and potential of garden classrooms, every school wants one, and every teacher who has one has the resources and knowledge to use it well. That world is one of children inspired by education and eager to learn more throughout their lives. It is one of greater health and well-being, as people’s understanding of food and their relationship with it supports their lifelong wellness. It is a world in which generations of children and adults together understand the role of science in their lives and the value of being good stewards of the environment. All of this is possible, one seed, one lesson, one taste, one connection at a time.