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.

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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.

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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.

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