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Chicago Master Gardener

A blog for Chicago Master Gardeners providing information on volunteer opportunities, training, workshops and resources.
Kids Gardening-5

National Children and Youth Garden Symposium

Posted by Ron Wolford -

Sidetracked by the distractions and demands of the digital age, American children are spending less time outdoors, leading to what Richard Louv, author of Last Child In The Woods, has dubbed "nature-deficit disorder." Several recent studies have linked this diminishing exposure to the natural world during youth to everything from health issues to learning problems, which has helped to fuel a growing national movement to bridge this disconnect.

One key resource for finding solutions is the American Horticultural Society's National Children & Youth Garden Symposium (NCYGS). Recognizing the need to expose young people to nature-and plants specifically-the American Horticultural Society (AHS) started this groundbreaking educational program 15 years ago. Since then, hundreds of civic leaders, children's advocates, teachers, parents, gardeners, and others have gathered once a year to share ideas and success stories as well as gain inspiration for new ways to engage youth in gardening.

"When the first symposium took place in 1993, there was not an organized national effort in the children's gardening arena," explains Stephanie Jutila, the AHS's education programs manager. "The symposium provides a forum for everyone to get together to share ideas and experiences for tailoring gardening and plant-based educational programs to youth in a meaningful way."

Maureen Heffernan, the AHS's education coordinator at the time, provided the original vision to develop the inaugural symposium. "The idea was to inspire educators and other adults to create children's gardens and programs about plants, gardening, and nature," says Heffernan. "We also wanted these gardens and programs to plant the seed in children to become environmental stewards when they grew up. From all of the feedback I've received over the years, the symposium continues to accomplish these goals and has significantly raised awareness about the many benefits of children's gardening programs."

"There has been a dramatic increase in gardening programs for children at public garden sites," agrees Jane L. Taylor, founding curator of the Michigan 4-H Children's Garden and a member of the NCYGS advisory panel. "The symposium has helped to influence this current trend and without support from the American Horticultural Society, I'm sure this surge would not have happened."

Taylor was a keynote speaker at the very first symposium as well as several subsequent ones. Keynote speakers have also included ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, author Sharon Lovejoy, landscape architect Robin Moore, author and futurist Richard Louv, and many other experts on the forefront of children's gardening efforts.

"By attending the NCYGS," Taylor says, "with the many workshop sessions, off-site garden visitations, the power of the keynote speakers, and networking with like-minded folks from all over the world, participants return to their own communities energized to make a change." One such example is the Camden City Garden Club in New Jersey, which found the inspiration to create the Camden Children's Garden after attending the inaugural symposium.

"We heard Jane Taylor speak about her children's garden in Michigan and we had an 'aha' moment," remembers Mike Devlin, executive director of the four-acre Camden Children's Garden. As the garden club embarked on their project to build a new children's garden, Taylor provided the group with valuable guidance and advice as the idea developed over the years. The garden opened in 1999, and today, in one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the nation, it "provides a safe place for kids to come and get introduced to plants," says Devlin.

Allan Werthan of Evergreen, Colorado, had a similar experience when he attended the symposium for the first time in 2004. "I was astounded to learn that such a strong youth garden movement existed and the influence on me was profound," Werthan says. "I was amazed by the diversity of developing programs and the resources available to me." Werthan has since launched Global Children's Gardens, a nonprofit organization that works to create a network of community-based, youth directed greenhouses and gardening programs.

Indeed, over the years, symposium attendees have discovered countless ways to use plants and gardening to enhance teaching methods, encourage community involvement, and get children and youth excited about the outdoors. Building on that spirit of endless possibilities, this year's 15th annual symposium's theme, "Widening the Circle," references the idea of tapping into a diverse group of practitioners from related fields to create fresh approaches and expanded audiences for children's and youth gardening programs.

As more and more individuals and organizations become aware of the myriad benefits of getting young people interested in nature, challenges such as securing funding, recruiting committed volunteers, and convincing skeptical administrations will become easier to overcome. And the children themselves will have a greener future because as Taylor concludes, "Gardens grow kids!"


The 2007 AHS National Children & Youth Garden Symposium will be held July 19-21 in Chaska, Minnesota, hosted by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Public Policy Programs. Keynote speakers will be Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota; Sherry Norfolk, professional storyteller and educator; and Albe Zakes, eco-revolutionary entrepreneur.

In addition to the keynote presentations, the Symposium will include more than 30 educational sessions on topics ranging from innovative ideas for non-traditional classrooms and interdisciplinary studies to new strategies for making a difference beyond the confines of the classroom. Attendees will also have the opportunity to explore various area gardens and educational facilities such as the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park, Gale Woods Farm, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Marion Andrus Learning Center.

During the Symposium, the 2007 "Growing Good Kids-Excellence in Children's Literature Awards" will also be unveiled. Presented jointly by the National Junior Master Gardener Program and the American Horticultural Society, these awards honor engaging and inspiring works of plant-, garden-, and ecology-themed children's literature.

Next year's symposium will be held July 24 to 26, 2008 in the Greater Philadelphia Area, hosted by Camden Children's Garden, Longwood Gardens, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and Winterthur Museum & Country Estate.

For more information, visit or call 703-768-5700.

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