Smiles Matter: Summer Solstice Summary

Thank you so much for being so inclusive and helping the kids foster mutual respect, I know this is challenging to facilitate and you do a great job.

Dirt Girl Parent, Spring 2022

Although today marks the “official” start to the summer season, the end of the academic school year typically signals summer vacation for most educators. My summer started after the last session of the spring season of Dirt Girls was held on June 10th. It was not quite as hot that day as it is today (104 degrees in Napa!), but it was hot enough that we really looked forward to popsicles!

Dirt Girls 2018 on a field trip to Outdoor Supply Hardware.

Our spring season started April 18th and was filled with smiles. Why focus on smiles? According to a recent research report from the Wallace Foundation, 84% of parents they surveyed rank the statement, “Your child seems happy/likes attending,” as their #1 priority for Out of School (OST) programming.

Smiles matter.

Seven participants wore spring smiles during our twice weekly sessions at New Tech High School. Although this was a new site for me to teach in, and an unfamiliar garden for most of the participants, we gradually developed a connection to the space and engaged in place-based learning. For example, kids had favorite “sit spots” where we would gather as a group or they could observe on their own or complete garden chores. A few loved exploring in the bamboo ‘forest,’ while others preferred watering plants or watching the rosemary hedges for lizards.

Hope: “a belief something will happen” Made from bamboo leaves, a rock, kale and dandelion leaves.

One of our favorite activities was a nature word art challenge. Partners spell an empowering word–such as “hope” or “love”– using pieces found in nature. This activity nurtures creativity, leadership, and communication as partners/teams share roles and space. It also provides a focused, safe way to play outside. The best part is how participants articulated the meaning they find in the words. For example, for the word “hope,” R. thought it meant, “a belief something will happen.”

Planting is always a favorite task. We started the season with sunflower seeds, followed by gladiolus bulbs and edible crops. The garden club advisors at New Tech High were generous with sharing their planting space. This allowed Dirt Girls to sow two ‘three-sisters’ beds (an interplanting of corn, beans, and squash). We also planted a bed of sunflowers for seed saving, and a third containing a mix of edible herbs, vegetables and flowers for tasting (such as cilantro, pansies, radishes, potatoes, etc.). We even tried germinating redwood seeds with varying degrees of success (germination kits provided by One Tree Planted).

After a two-year pandemic pause, it was thrilling to bring Dirt Girls back to life. As the founder and Lead Dirt Girl, I believe this program shows promise for what Out of School Time Programs should offer: “passion, purpose, & voice.” The smiles show that the participants agreed.

Until the fall…keep digging.


Out-of-School Time Programs: Paving the Way for Children to Find Passion, Purpose, & Voice


Herstory Matters: The Origins of the Dirt Girls Program

It’s especially meaningful for me to share the story of growing Dirt Girls at start of Women’s History Month. Pictured below are two girls from the last cohort of a “pandemic proof” version of the program offered last spring alongside a journal entry from one of the original Dirt Girls participants.

“I appreciate outdoors and gardening because I live in an apartment that has a tiny patio, so when I go to dirt girls it is a chance for me to develop the knowledge of gardening and science.” DiRT GiRLS participant, 2017

In 2016, I began a program that I whimsically called “Dirt Girls.” The initial impetus was maintaining a school garden–planting, clearing, harvesting, and enjoying nature. The program quickly grew into a very special, safe place for girls to explore their science identities. The program has been planting empowerment ever since.

Over the following two years, the Dirt Girls grew into a strong group who loved engaging in garden tasks, practicing scientific habits of mind, and becoming dynamic and motivated young women. We participated in service learning, took field trips & hosted community events. In June of 2020, we bid a virtual farewell to four fifth grade girls who had been in the program since they were 2nd graders.

In 2018, a dad at the school where Dirt Girls started asked the principal when there would be an after school garden program that included boys. Against my preference, I changed the name to Dirt Kids for a year. Participation dropped and that dad’s son was the only boy who joined. By the end of the year, the garden was a weedy mess. In 2019 I restored the name Dirt Girls. It will remain a program explicitly rooted in equity. 

Without access to schools as a result of the pandemic, I developed a virtual program dubbed Dirt Girls Grow Indoors. I sourced houseplants and had them delivered to kids’ homes and then offered virtual programming on Zoom four times a week. We explored air plants, succulents, ferns, and terraria. Each month a new module also focused on cultivating resilience: learning to breathe, reduce stress, exercise our bodies and be creative. Although it was a bit of a departure from the outdoor version of the program, Dirt Girls Grow Indoors met the same goal: inspiring dozens of girls to pursue science as a career path, but also learning to care for herself, others, and the world. 

By April of 2021, we were able to gather in person at the Martha Walker Native Habitat Garden in Skyline Park. Field trips are an aim of the program I hope to revive going forward. Research tells us that time spent in nature can increase affinity for science. It can be a gateway to science careers. This program will always be grounded in nature

As of just a few weeks ago, I’ve secured a location for Dirt Girls. Starting in mid-April, we’ll be meeting at a centrally located high school where two teachers and a dozen students could use more hands to maintain their campus gardens. In this new space, we’ll have the benefit of working with older garden mentors who want to engage in community service. The school is located across the street from the food bank, so we’ll grow some crops to donate there. We’ll also start a seed garden, plants grown for the purpose of collecting, harvesting, and sharing seed. We’ll tend to the native plants, maintain compost, and start pollinator gardens.