"Kid-Powered": Turning a County-Owned Farm into an Earth School
An Interview with Barbara Sarbin, founder of Earth School
In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, journalist (and former CFK senior editor) Richard Louv coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" to describe children's growing disconnection from the natural world and the attendant consequences for behavior and development.
It's a term that resonates with Barbara Sarbin, an actress and teacher who in 1998 started Earth School in Westchester County, New York.
Long a believer in learning through hands-on physical experience, Sarbin was shocked to discover just how little today's children and teens know about the natural world. Some of her students "had no idea a potato comes from the ground. When you explain that they can turn that potato into French fries, they look at you and say, 'French fries are potatoes?' They [also] don't know what's inside of eggs," she says. Others couldn't identify the sound of a frog or a crow's call.
"I believe that if kids are learning hands-on, not just from a book, video or a single field trip, in 10 years we'll be in better shape – they'll be adults who live differently."
Earth School uses a 183-acre Westchester County-owned farm to deliver hands-on academic and agricultural lessons to more than 1,000 public school students each year, ranging from pre-K to grade 12. Fifty homeschooled students attend daytime programs held in seasonal sessions, and dozens more children and teens come through for a day or a weekend.
It's not just about walking in the woods. Students get their hands dirty raising vegetables, composting, and caring for chickens and gathering eggs. Last year, the students raised $800 to build a seesaw-powered water pump that pulls water from a wetland pond to irrigate the vegetable garden.
The next big project? On December 5, 2008, Earth School will install a bicycle-powered electric generator to heat and provide water to the chicken coop. "We worked hard to get this done before it got too cold," says Sarbin.
>> Seesaw water pump? Bike-powered generator? What does that look like? Check out this 1-minute video (or keep reading, below):
About half of Earth School's students are from economically disadvantaged families or have special needs, but Sarbin is quick to point out that disconnection from the natural world is not limited to children considered "at risk."
"Throughout our culture, children have become very far removed from understanding local, natural, seasonal foods and how to care for the environment," she says.
So what does it really take to turn concern into action? Connect for Kids caught up with Barbara Sarbin to get the story. (Sarbin is also the daughter of Hershel Sarbin, founder of Child Advocacy360, a CFK content partner.)
How did Earth School start for you?
Sarbin: I was working as an actress and theater teacher, developing programs for public school in urban environments where children's experience of social studies was limited to reading from books. I was asked to develop programs that would be whole-body sensory experiences of, for example, ancient Egypt or medieval times where kids could act out in costumes … What I saw was the kids in these environments responded so positively to physical experiences of academic learning that it just hit me, I said, 'This is what I need to do' and I came up with idea of Earth School.
I'd always been nature-oriented in terms of my teaching, but I hadn't recognized the extent to which public school kids were not getting out of the classroom—particularly after September 11, a lot of funding for field trips dried up, and there was resistance to taking kids out of school, which could raise safety concerns.
In 2002, I and a group of parents and teachers got together to found Something Good in the World, a nonprofit that runs Earth School.
How did you work out the location?
I was working at nature centers and public schools indoors, and I was desperate for a place where we could base our operations and have constant access to the outdoors, rather than a place where kids could come only once. I wanted a situation where students could come every day.
I went to Hilltop Hanover Farm in Westchester County, met with [the county staff] and spent months working out the details. They were keen to have not just school programs but also ongoing families and kids all ages working on creating gardens and trying to live in a sustainable way.
What were the biggest challenges to starting the program?
Money is one challenge; it's an issue for people to be able to afford the buses or the minimum that it costs to spend the day there. We charge for some programs (at the most affordable level we can), others are free. We also offer scholarships for families in need.
For school districts that are considered "high need," we offer school trips free of charge. These districts that often need financial assistance for transportation. So far, we have found one foundation, Dannon, to help with this.
The biggest issue is liability—just about everything in our culture that prevents kids from being able to be outdoors is all about liability.
We have to get permission to allow kids to be out there, gardening and hiking and playing. As soon as you use public facility, you have to make sure who's responsible if someone trips and falls. We're also dealing with farm animals and products so we have to meet Health Department requirements and need insurance on that.
Who is responsible for the liability issues?
Something Good in the World, the nonprofit we launched to operate Earth School, is responsible for the well-being of the students in our care.
How is Earth School structured?
We've got kids there everyday and some who just come once. There's a huge range of experiences in terms of how involved they or their school or family become. We have teens who do this as community service for high school requirements.
You can't expect kids to go out and weed 20 acres, so we have a little vegetable plot. We try to do everything at very small scale like this. That way the children and families are involved in doing it. If the outdoor area or project is too large-scale, you look at it from a distance and think, "that's cool," but you don't develop a relationship with it. This way, its' kid-powered. And small is sustainable.
What about funding and staffing?
Funding comes primarily from individual and corporate donations, a grant from the Westchester Arts Council, and funds from foundations including Dannon, Pitney-Bowes, and Entergy.
I'm full-time as an independent contractor; just about everyone else is part-time or an independent contractor. There's an enormous amount of volunteer work that goes on. A lot of the educational work we do comes from people who donate an afternoon or evening to teach canning or knitting, for example.
How do you recruit volunteers?
Mainly through word of mouth. We want to be in a situation where more schools or groups that are farther away will hear about our programs, but we don't have a goal of trying to reach hundreds of thousands of people. We aren't giant and don't want to be; I'd rather find schools that are committed and want students to have this experience and will carry it on year after year.
What about measuring outcomes?
The last few years we have used questionnaires to measure some impact. We see impact in a close-in, day-to-day way and we get positive feedback. I am not sure how you quantify long-term impact, but I do think we will see the results in the future through the improvements in awareness and sustainable living practices of the families and students who we have worked with.
Do you have advice to share on measuring impact? Or questions about Earth School and Something Good in the World? Contact Barbara Sarbin at email@example.com.
Barbara Sarbin is president of Something Good in the World, and founder of Earth School in Yorktown, New York. She spoke with Connect for Kids' Caitlin Johnson on November 24, 2008.