Learning Landscapes: Obtaining a Yield in the Garden and in Community-Based Education

Critical Life Skills: You Can’t Work on an Empty Stomach

Cucumbers and peppers, and tomatoes, oh my! Although these are not quite as daunting as lions and tigers, and bears (oh my), Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz faced a situation many of us who garden face each year. Should we feel the thrill of coming face to face with yields like cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes or the fear? Obtaining a yield is such a simple concept and yet can be a bit overwhelming at times, especially if we don’t know how to handle the yields that we all have in our lives.

This year my family incorporated several smaller “no-till” garden plots into our landscape design and are obtaining quite an additional yield ourselves. The first one is along the front of the house where we added a no-till kitchen garden area to include an herb spiral feature. We made two circular no-till garden plots in the back yard and let the kids plant “pizza gardens.” In addition, we added two vertical living playhouse structures and two additional circular no-till garden beds in the front yard planted with the Three Sisters – corn, squash and beans (or in one case mammoth sunflowers, squash and beans). We are looking at obtaining quite a yield this year, but the food that will result is just one of those yields we hope to acquire.

These new garden plots are an example of how my family integrates the values, principles, and framework of a design science called permaculture into how we ethically value, design and live in our physical landscape. However, we also integrate this way of thinking into our learning landscapes as well. Instead of thinking exclusively about natural resources, this framework helps us and our children learn how to value and use natural relationships. Once children start to see how they are connected with, and have a responsibility to others and the earth, they begin to leverage patterns in all areas of learning and life. Learning the skill of ethically and sustainably “obtaining a yield” is one way to help children design and enrich natural relationships – with self, others, and the earth – and nourish life.

There are many useful, ecologically-friendly tools and techniques that can be applied to our gardens and physical landscapes, but it is the whole systems thinking that makes permaculture unique. Things like a school or community garden help children learn about their relationship with the earth, but we can go beyond that and help our children see themselves and their entire learning landscapes through the lens of whole systems thinking as well. To do this, we have to consider caring for the earth and people and the return of surplus (simply using what we have that is extra in our lives to further the care of people and the earth). We also have a set of 12 thinking tools that, when used together, help us maintain a mindful state of being. This can then be used to creatively re-imagine and re-design our environment (including the learning landscape) and our behaviors.

Rather than thinking of these as “principles” it is more useful, appropriate, and empowering to consider these to be thinking tools to be skillfully (and playfully) applied, tested, and integrated to help us learn ‘how to’ ethically cultivate natural relationships and design community infused learning and life. These thinking tools, like the one we are discussing today – Obtain a Yield, apply not only to the natural world, but can be infused in anything and everything in learning and life.

You Can’t Work on an Empty Stomach

To date, we’ve talked about the thinking tools of “observe and interact” and “catching and storing energy.” That leads us to today’s exploration of the third of 12 permaculture thinking tools, Obtain a Yield. This thinking tool is simple in concept and yet quite challenging when we start to see how it integrates into all areas of our lives. All of the sudden, “obtaining a yield” is not quite as simple as growing cucumbers and peppers, and tomatoes, oh my!

Everything that we learn and do has the potential to create a vast range of potential benefits and yields. There is a great value in learning to take responsibility, meeting our own needs through using and valuing our resources, and obtaining a yield to better care for ourselves, others, and the earth. This includes not only doing things that empower us to provide yields in the form of food, water, or shelter, but also to do things that generate yields related to less commonly discussed “needs” including developing and maintaining caring personal and social relationships, connecting at our core to the beauty and healing powers of nature, pursuing opportunities to learn and develop throughout our lifetime, and managing our priorities which tends to generate a yield of time because we no longer spend our time on tasks that are not central to who we are and who we want to become.

It is important as our children explore these thinking tools that we do so within the framework of our three ethics:

  1. Care of Earth
  2. Care of People
  3. Return of Surplus

Our children can easily and quickly acquire the academic and scientific “know how” to obtain a yield, but it is these three ethics working as a general scaffold for our children’s learning landscape that provide our children with the traditional wisdom for “knowing how” to ethically and sustainably obtain a yield.

Care of Earth

The earth sustains and provides us with all the essential elements to live – air, water, soil, food, shelter, and energy. We depend on the earth and all living systems for our survival. People are not separate from the earth, but interconnected. There is a reason why people talk about the “web of life.” When children explore what it means to care for the earth, they learn how to become actively aware and take responsibility to ensure that their everyday decisions and actions care for living and non-living things, such as animals, plants, soil, water, and air. All of a sudden, the thinking tool Obtain a Yield takes on a different meaning because it is no longer just about getting something for yourself but about finding joy in our relationships (in this case with Mother Earth who provides us with so many natural yields).

Learning and living by the ethic “Care of the Earth” means taking our place as responsible caretakers today knowing that we are just borrowing it from our children’s children. In today’s world of instant gratification, applying this thinking tools as viewed through the lens of Care of Earth can help our children explore what it might mean to obtain a yield that is realized generations down the line.

Care of People

Learning to care for people starts with learning to take responsibility and care for oneself. However, in one’s search for self a deep connection with nature is essential. How can you know who you are without knowing where you are? Helping children learn to care for themselves and others starts right in their own backyards. Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz maybe said it best:

If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!

Obtaining a yield should also be beneficial for people, including ourselves. Often we want children to be selfless but it is in the act of learning to care for oneself in relationship with others and nature that actually leads to a greater desire to give. By obtaining a yield in our garden, we are likely to also obtain greater social and emotional yields because we take the time to walk to our neighbors and share a bit of our abundance or can some to share with our local food bank. Obtaining a yield becomes a tool that helps us to connect to and enrich the lives of not only ourselves but others and our communities.
If someone is really interested in helping care for people, then it is in their best self-interest to care for not just their academic development, but also their physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual needs as well. Far too often we focus on academic yields without consideration for holistic development. These are all types of “yields” that our children can obtain. Our children desire to be recognized and valued as individuals with intrinsic worth, as well as part of the bigger whole. Beyond just physical interdependency, humans psychologically need to feel connected to others and the world for mental, emotional, and social well-being. Obtaining a yield can mean so much more than just cucumbers and peppers, and tomatoes, oh my!

Return of Surplus

We live in an interconnected world full of abundance that can be responsibly used, valued, and enriched to further the care of ourselves, others, and the Earth. We live in a world where the possibilities are only limited by our imagination and willingness to take action. What do you see when you look around? Chances are you are looking at a surplus of yields such as food in the pantry, love in your family, books filling shelves, toys spilling out of boxes, clean, drinkable water from your faucets, last night’s leftovers, dirty laundry piled up in your laundry basket, stress at work, plethora of cucumbers growing in your garden in summer, or perhaps piles and piles of fallen “tree litter” in autumn. Yields and surplus comes in many forms – physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. It is only when we view life through a lens of abundance that we can actually value and responsibly return surplus to generate more yields that can be sustainably used, shared, and returned to further the care of people and the earth.

Teaching Our Children to Fish

Obtain a Yield can take on many forms in our children’s learning landscapes and it can start with something as simple as sharing this thinking tool and modeling how to use it to help guide decision-making. Children come to realize that, in the spirit of the words of Bill Mollison, the potential and actual yields in their lives are theoretically only limited by the creativity, imagination, and resilience of themselves, the designers. There is an unlimited potential for yields if the designer (the child) is empowered with an educational ecosystem that values and encourages innovation and inquisitiveness.

Integrating the ethics and thinking tools of permaculture into children’s learning landscapes helps them extend and enrich their understanding of themselves. It promotes whole systems thinking and an understanding of our roles and responsibilities as part of a global world. If we are able to care for ourselves, we are then better prepared to obtain and use our yields to enrich our family and greater community. This in turn feeds back to us and our “yield” is exponentially more valuable. The essence of this is captured by the expression: Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life. Now, imagine what a community filled with individuals who not only know how to fish, but seek to teach others to fish can accomplish.

[Photo credit: (cc) roamingweb]


Jen MendezJen Mendez

Jen is a wife, mother of two joyous children, experiential education mentor, and founder of PERMIE KIDs. She has a M. Ed. in International Education and has worked with children in the U.S. and overseas from early childhood through the primary years, as well as parent-educators. She integrates an ethical, design science methodology with her love for education to help others learn to design a customized education with their children that honors themselves, others, and the earth.

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