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Extension Grows Youths' Interest in Horticulture

Brittnay Haag teaching at Horticulture Center Children's Garden

Our unit director, Bobbie Lewis-Sibley, often says, “I wish there were a garden in every school,” a response to youths' unfamiliarity where their food comes from, and a deficiency of interaction with the natural environment.

At the Unity Community Center, Extension’s after-school site in Normal, youth have harvested potatoes with glee, released butterflies with gentleness, and tracked water flow in a stream with the precision of scientists. But how does Extension connect with other youth in our community and give them similar experiences as the youth at Unity?

Our director hired Brittnay Haag to provide youth horticulture education. She is a graduate from Illinois State University who studied under award-winning David Kopsell and worked at the Horticulture Center alongside Jessica Chambers. Her passion for experiential learning with youth parallels my passion for insects. She has an intrinsic understanding on how to connect with youth and generate a love of nature.

Brittnay conducted a survey to identify the barriers that schools face when starting and implementing a garden. The schools identified a need for garden-based curriculum and connecting that curriculum to the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core, teacher training, funding opportunities, and lack of general gardening knowledge as their greatest barriers.

In turn, Brittnay has made strategic plans on how to address these issues within the schools, including creating curriculum and identifying funding opportunities.

One program she has developed, called “Little Roots,” is for the 4-H Clover Bud program. Clover Buds are ages 5-7, and too young to show their projects at the fair. The program provides youth with a calendar, seeds, and instructions on growing their own vegetables and flowers with their families, then gives them opportunities to showcase what they grew. Over 120 Clover Buds completed the program, budding into little gardeners.

Brittnay also led the development of teaching kits for check-out by members of the Master Gardener program (she had wonderful assistance from the many retired teachers that populate the group). The kits are filled with supplies and lesson ideas that volunteers can take to youth programs, and expand youths' knowledge of gardening and nature.

In her short tenure as horticulture educator, Brittnay’s programming has reached thousands of youth and made a lasting impression on those who inherently love learning about flowers, vegetables and all things in the natural world. She knows how to connect to them at their level.

In our recent Master Gardener training, Brittnay incorporated hands-on learning experiences to break up the lectures, reminding trainees “the learning will be more meaningful if they can actually do!”