Gardening is so much more than growing plants.

It connects people to the natural world and has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Spending time in a garden environment, with hands in the soil bolsters feelings of well-being and peace.

Plus, learning about the importance of water as a valuable but limited resource at a young age can plant the seeds for a lifetime of environmental conservation.

Impact of the Outdoors

Understanding the impact that gardening can have on young people, especially those from an urban environment, is exactly why The Water Conservation Garden sought Opening the Outdoors funding to host virtual and on-site Ms. Smarty Plants field trips during summer 2022.

“100% of the program participants attending the Opening the Outdoors enrichment activities attend Title 1 Schools and live in El Cajon, an area identified as having low-park access,” said Jennifer Pillsbury, Executive Director and CEO of The Water Conservation Garden, also known as The Garden.

Visiting The Garden

For many students, visiting The Garden might be one of their few outdoor experiences. In addition to gardening, various environmental activities also help create future conservationists.

“My favorite thing is that we got to come here for three days and that we could do crafts because I am creative,” said one student participant. “I will share with my family to reduce, reuse and recycle. As an Earth Hero, I will ride my bike to school and save energy. As an Earth Hero, I will save wildlife, never waste water, help the Earth, save energy, reduce, reuse and recycle. That is what I will do!”

As a result of the 2021-2022 SDF Opening the Outdoors grant, Cajon Valley Elementary School was able to send 145 campers to The Garden to participate in the Ms. Smarty Plants Summer Enrichment Camp. Another 120 students from Madison Avenue Elementary School experienced virtual field trips.

In total, all 285 students received full scholarships covered by the Opening the Outdoors grant.

Ms. Smarty Plantys program students with a turtle

The activities that the students participated in at The Garden showed the importance of lessening their impact on very limited freshwater resources and provided an opportunity to learn about the joys and rewards of gardening and nature. Some key highlights of this successful program include:

  • 100% of the students who attended the camp showed enthusiasm for protecting the environment due to the program, according to the teacher chaperones.
  • 100% of the teacher chaperones reported that the camp activities were extremely beneficial for the students’ overall well-being.
  • 100% of surveyed students said ‘yes, they would take action to reduce water usage at home’ and would be stronger advocates for the environment.

“My favorite part was the interactive activities,” exclaimed one teacher chaperone. “The students loved touching and planting their own plants and also enjoyed walking through the sprinklers. I personally really liked that each day was a different activity.”

Additionally, the funding from the grant allowed The Garden’s education team to design a Ms. Smarty Plants program evaluation with guidance from Thrive Outside. The Garden’s marketing team was able to create flyers translated into Spanish and Arabic to share throughout the community. Finally, the grant helped to cover the costs of transporting students to and from The Garden from the Camp Cajon locations.

The Outdoors are for Everyone

In 2021, San Diego Foundation announced $698,000 in grants to nonprofit organizations expanding access to the outdoors for children and families in the San Diego region. In 2022, $838,000 in grants were awarded to local nonprofits to expand equitable access to outdoor spaces in San Diego County.

These grants are made possible by the Opening the Outdoors program at San Diego Foundation, which connects, protects and increases equitable access to the outdoors across San Diego County, especially for those in underserved and park-deficient communities.

Learn more about the Opening the Outdoors program and how it’s helping San Diegans discover the wonders of the natural world and enjoy the benefits of outdoor activity.