Sustainability education and outdoor learning come alive at Shady Side Academy through its unique SSA Farm program, which includes gardens on all four campuses that provide interdisciplinary, experiential learning opportunities.
The SSA Farm includes a large 40-foot-by-100-foot garden at the Senior School and raised garden beds at the Middle, Junior and Country Day Schools. Three of the campuses have egg-laying hens. Together, the gardens yield more than 600 pounds of organic produce annually, which is sold at the Fox Chapel Farmers Market and used by SSA’s cafeterias, bringing the farm-to-table concept directly to students’ lunch trays.
“The goal is for students to develop a curiosity and appreciation for the outdoors,” says Director of SSA Farms Anna Sekine. “The more you learn about where your food comes from, and all the steps that it takes to get to your plate, the more it opens your mind.”
Sekine oversees the gardens and works with faculty to integrate the farm into the PK-12 curriculum. She also oversees the Fox Chapel Farmers Market, held weekly on the Senior School campus from June-October.
At the Senior School, environmental science classes do soil testing and examine industrial and sustainable agriculture. Health classes utilize farm produce in a nutrition unit, learning about nutrient density and food access. Students can choose PE Farm as their fall or spring athletics option to earn credit working on the farm, and can serve as farmers market managers each summer, learning management, marketing and community relations skills.
Middle School students can choose Farm as their spring activity option or join the Ecology Committee to help tend the eight raised garden beds and native pollinator garden. Or join the Chicken Committee to care for the hens. Science classes study the role of decomposers and pollinators in the food system and learn about sustainable growing practices, native and invasive plant species and plant biology.
At the Junior School, elementary students help tend five raised garden beds and hens. Science classes study plant life cycles, beneficial insects, nutrient cycling and taking food from seed to plate. Each week Sekine gives pre-kindergarteners a cooking lesson using items from the garden corresponding to their Letter of the Week.
Country Day School has a U-shaped raised garden bed filled with herbs, flowers and tomatoes. PK-5 students start seedlings in the science lab, plant them in the garden and harvest vegetables for salads and salsa. They learn about soil, composting and insects, visiting the Senior School farm to observe how bees aid in pollination, and chickens provide nutrients and insect control.
Sekine sees the SSA Farm as a valuable learning tool. “The farm is a powerful educational instrument,” she says. “Through gardening, students learn how to be responsible caretakers for their environments. They also develop patience, teamwork and a sense of ownership. It’s truly a field of learning.”