Return of the Dirt Girls: Fostering Teamwork and Inclusion in the Garden

A little over a year ago, I established an after school club that I dubbed “Dirt Girls.” The decision to limit participation only to girls was initially motivated by the relative inequity in STEM fields. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up just 29% of the STEM workforce. Research suggests that time spent in nature can increase environmental literacy, which can be a gateway to science careers.

This year, Dirt Girls started strong: 14 girls signed up for the first six-week club. At least a few participants were returning Dirt Girls. In fact, one member was a Dirt Girl all last year! She is now my sidekick co-leader, upholding the Dirt Girl norms  in my absence. We even recruited an honorary “Dirt Mom.”

Our weekly practices are simple, yet productive. At the start of the hour, we gather in a circle and check in. I list off the jobs that need doing. Last week, for instance, I identified the following tasks: 3

  • lightly turn the soil in one row,
  • clear a new bed for lettuce,
  • plant onions, garlic, and fava beans,
  • harvest the rest of the summer squash.

If a task requires demonstration, I show everyone at the start, so no one is excluded from selecting a task she doesn’t (yet) know how to do. Most of the time, however, they girls get right down to business. They rarely even ask me where to find tools and readily swap out a trowel for a spade when they need to wrestle a long taproot from the ground.

After we outline the various jobs, girls announce what they want to work on or whom they want to work with. I allow complete autonomy in selecting tasks, however I always encourage older or more experienced girls to mentor younger or less experienced ones. Just last week we had a student who is brand new to the school join us, so I asked a repeat Dirt Girl to be her partner so she could learn our garden rules and routines.

Teamwork is an important part of the Dirt Girls ethos.

Because the Dirt Girls are so independent, I can typically complete a few jobs of my own, but mostly I circulate to chat with the girls and compliment their efforts. We especially value teamwork over competition. The type of work we do in the garden often prompts interesting peer-to-peer discussions and spontaneous learning.

We typically work for about a half of an hour before I announce that it’s time to wrap up. I don’t rush this process. So much of the regular school day is spent adhering to strict time allotments; I like to “grow slow” in the garden.  I remind girls to determine a good stopping point and start cleaning and putting away tools. Our final step is to document our work. The end-of-hour group selfie is one of our favorite pastimes.


Although the composition of the Dirt Girls may change from one six-week cycle to the next, some characteristics are constant. One thing all Dirt Girls have in common is a love of nature and a desire to get dirty. I have no doubt that many boys would also enjoy this type of engagement in the school garden, but for now, we’re girls only.

Dirt Girls to the Rescue: 12 Sets of Hands Make Light Work

At the beginning of the school year, I wondered how I would possibly accomplish all of my regular job duties while also adding garden and kitchen teaching to my plate, not to mention maintaining the current culinary garden site. My answer came in the form of an after school club.

I call them the Dirt Girls. The group varies in size (four to twelve girls at a time) and in age (kinder through fourth grade), but they have one thing in common. They all want more time in the garden. For one hour on Monday afternoons, they get just that. And I get eight to twenty-four extra hands to pull weeds, plant seeds, and do any number of small deeds.

The Dirt Girls are not just my minions. They reap multiple benefits of this intimate club. They learn. They play. They make cross-grade friendships. They usually get to take home produce. But most importantly, they become little garden experts through an apprenticeship approach.

Last week, for instance, we had a weed contest. It’s a lot more fun to offer a prize for the longest taproot than to succumb to the chore of pulling weeds. To compete, the girls had to form teams, select their target weed, and use the right tools to extract as much of the taproot as possible. They enthusiastically cheered on their plants and celebrated the winning root, which came in at 10 inches long!

The Dirt Girls showing off the victorious taproot.

In the end, they learned more than how to identify the difference between mallow and dandelions. They noticed a pattern that most of the smallest mallow plants had a 8 in. taproot, while the dandelions only had a 4-6 in. taproot. This was an interesting observation because at this stage of growth, these weeds happened to have an inverse relationship between leaf height and root depth; the mallow leaves were smaller and wider, while the dandelions were much narrower and longer.

Simple games like this are not just tricks for engaging the girls in the desired task. They would probably pull the weeds even without a contest. Instead, I get to engage them in a different way than I do when I have a class of 25 children in the garden. I can easily demonstrate how to use tools and there is plenty of space for all of them to work safely. Contrary to the adage, “many hands make light work,” the more students you have in a garden, the harder it can be to set up enough authentic tasks for them to do.

Authenticity is key. The Dirt Girls like doing the real work of the garden and they often get to choose the things they like best. They like reviewing the list of jobs before we begin and checking them off as we finish them. They take great pride in upholding the norms of the garden and sharing their snippets of lemon balm, cilantro, or tiny carrots with their families.

I have tried several other strategies for finding committed time to maintain the school garden, but the Dirt Girls are by far the most successful so far. Get in touch if you want to come work with the Dirt Girls some Monday. They will be happy to show you the ropes.

The Dirt Girls showing off their garden journals.