DIRT GROUP – Growing to Learn, Learning to Grow
Participation in experiential gardening groups influences social skill development in at-risk youth (Turck, 2012)
On October 27th DIRT GROUP Participants demonstrated the skills they have learned, practiced, and mastered through their participation in DIRT GROUP for our Harvest Banquet Celebration and besides reviewing and practicing target area skills identified i each participant’s individual treatment plan–they also fed over 100 people at our banquet. WOW!!! Talk about Paying It Forward!!! This Thanksgiving Season I am grateful for a bunch of kids who many people counted out. The difference they made and the commitment they demonstrated made a difference in their communities. DIRT GROUP 2012 Participants donated 53 turkeys they helped to raise over 5 1/2 months. TEN turkeys were donated to a local ecumenical church outreach group for community meals in November. Each DIRT GROUP Participant also received a donated turkey as well as made donations to additional community members. DIRT GROUP Participants donated over 1,000 pounds of garden fresh produce to local food shelves as they learned to make a difference in others lives. In order to be successful in growing food together, participants are immersed in a rich marinade of experiential skills training opportunities. Together they learn important life and social skills in the context of a gardening/farming project.
Social work with groups is an effective intervention in working with at-risk youth (Collins, 2003; Mishna, Michalski, & Cummings, 2001; Williams, 2000). Through experiential group processes, youth can develop important social, cognitive, and behavioral skills (Long, 2001; Keen, 2004; Nyberg et al., 2008). As stated in the article, by Brendtro & Strother (2007, p. 2):
“A century ago, John Dewey proposed educating children through a curriculum rich in real-life problem-solving experiences. While many traditional schools have been slow to adopt such methods, experiential learning is making a significant impact in alternative education, youth development, and treatment settings. Challenge and adventure activities create powerful learning environments which fully engage youth and foster the development of courage, resilience, and responsibility.”
Experiential learning opportunities provide a positive learning experience for at-risk youth (Long, 2001; Williams, 2000; Mishna et al., 2001; Collins, 2003; Michalski et al., 2003). Pairing these opportunities with camp or wilderness experiences has demonstrated improved personal relationship skills when youth have a cohesive group experience (Collins, 2003; Williams, 2000). Experiential education has been popular for some time in programs serving at-risk students and has been referred to as, “adventure education, adventure based counseling, wilderness adventure, outdoor education, therapeutic camping, cooperative learning, peer mentoring, and service learning” (Brendtro & Strother, 2007, p. 3). These learning opportunities are often viewed as new experiences that are different from their day to day routine (Brendtro & Strother, 2007; Michalski, Mishna, Worthington, and Cummings, 2003; Collins, 2003) which fosters participation.
Teaching important social & life skills happens quite naturally in the garden and on the farm. These pictures demonstrate some of the tangible results of our cooperative/experiential learning groups. In order for us to be successful growing food together in DIRT GROUP participants learn, practice, & master skills related to emotional self-regulation which includes cooperating with others, following instructions, delaying gratification, dealing with frustration, staying on task, persevering on difficult tasks or projects, doing good quality work, talking with others, planning, being patient, problem solving, and many more. Participating in DIRT GROUP also gives participants an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves in a safe, structured, cohesive environment. For many at-risk youth DIRT GROUP provides a REAL sense of social inclusion and belonging. With donations to local food shelves & participating in local markets – youth develop a sense that they can make a positive difference in their communities and feel a strong sense of ownership and pride in themselves. This has a “big ripple effect” as these young people begin to form a social identity where they are acknowledged & affirmed for participating in their communities and begin to shed the labels of “troubled” or “delinquent” youth. These are REAL achievements–not only observable to others but also experienced by participants as a REAL increase of their self-esteem through these accomplishments & contributions. As these youth increase their social competencies through their participation in DIRT GROUP they also learn to generalize these skills to other areas of their lives thereby increasing the quality of their interactions and relationships with family members, peers, and others. The outcome of this marinade increases the mental health of our participants.
DIRT GROUP also provides alternative brain stimulation for youth culture–getting back to the roots–learning to connect the dots successfully to navigate life situations and prepare participants for life. Through repetitive exposure to skills training in the context of DIRT GROUP kids also experience some vicarious benefits such as how to think for themselves, how to learn about self-discipline, how to get along with others, and how to manage emotions when dealing with frustrating situations—these skill training opportunities aren’t available in natural environments that DIRT GROUP provides. When the average youth in the United States ages 8-18 consumes nearly 60 hours a week in screen time (texting, social media, video games, television, computer)–opportunities for this type of brain stimulation doesn’t exist. Kids today are limited in their access to nature-based experiences due to our culture and priorities changing as a society. When I was a kid growing up on the farm–I was immersed in an environment which provided many avenues for brain stimulation and development that are not available today for the majority of youth–at-risk or “mainstream” youth. Youth culture today is about easy, fast, fun, now according to research by Dr. David Walsh. Youth culture today is synonymous with entitlement–a sense of entitlement our society has fostered. Making everything easier isn’t always the answer. I love technology and the efficiency it provides but immediate gratification isn’t what kids need today or when I was a kid. Kids need opportunities to learn how to persevere, to cooperate with others, to problem solve, and to regulate their emotions and behaviors by learning about self-discipline and delaying gratification. We do a great job of trying to provide opportunities and advantages for our kids but sometimes it’s still REALLY IMPORTANT to teach them how sustained efforts bring about tangible results of REAL ACHIEVEMENT and prepares kids for life. Sustained efforts necessary in the garden and on the farm, whether raising fruits and vegetables or turkeys and chickens–are the same skills necessary for staying on top of school work, employment, or to have successful relationships with friends and family. HARD WORK has gotten a bad rap over the years–but is a very necessary ingredient for life rather than “easy, fast, fun, now”. Learning to recognize what skills are necessary to be successful in these situations are reinforced in DIRT GROUP skills training sessions and it is this repetitive work on learning, practicing, and mastering these skills which fosters successful brain development in DIRT GROUP Participants as they acquire necessary skills required to navigate life’s path successfully. (NEXT UP–What Spaghetti Sauce and DIRT GROUP have in common)
Kenny Turck, MSW, LGSW
CEO, Crow River Family Services, LLC
Program Director, Hooganaga Family Farms
DIRT GROUP IS sponsored by Hooganaga Family Farms and implemented by Crow River Family Services, LLC. DIRT GROUP is an experiential social skills training program for at-risk youth researched and designed by Hooganaga Family Farms Program Director and Crow River Family Services CEO Kenny Turck, MSW, LGSW and Hooganaga Family Farms Executive Director Joni Turck.