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A History
A Moment in the Sun:
Pittsburgh Received National Attention for School Garden Program in the 1910s

At the height of the national School Gardening Movement, the work of the Pittsburgh Playground Association received national recognition:


Among School Gardens (published in 1911) described the founding of the Department of Nature Study and School Gardening, concluding that:


"The work inaugurated this year promises to send Pittsburgh to the front in school garden work along with Washington, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Yonkers," (Greene, 233).


The Pittsburgh Playground Association's school gardening program was recognized for the level of fiscal support it received from the city.  In 1915, Pittsburgh was behind only Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati, in the amount of city government appropriation ($6700) for support of school gardens (reference).


C.D. Jarvis, the Diector of the US Bureau of Education, highlighed a primary result of the teacher training collaboration between the PPA and the University of Pittsburgh in Gardening in Elementary City Schools :


"This plan has been put into operation in a few cities and is worthy of comment here. It is especially adapted to large cities like Pittsburgh, where it has been worked out to the best advantage. It consists of the employment of a practical man as director, and with his aid teachers of desirable qualifications are selected in their respective schools to serve as garden teachers... In order to make it worth while for teachers to prepare for this work the maximum salary for garden teachers is $250 higher than that of the regular teachers. This additional salary, however, is given in the form of $50 increases for five years. With five years' experience in the work under the direction of the general supervisor, and in consideration of the extra service  demanded, they are worth more as teachers. The supporters of the plan claim that it works well. They call attention to an incidental advantage of the plan in the opportunity afforded for breaking in new teachers. The substitute teachers are obtained at low expense, and as a rule take care of the vacancies in the teaching staff."  (1916)

Emerging from the efforts of educators, community advocates, and government agencies, school gardens have a long and varied history in the United States--and Pittsburgh played a pivotal role!


The School Garden Movement in the United States has been traced to 1891, when the Massachusetts Horticulture Society sponsored a wildflower garden on the grounds of the George Putnam School outside of Boston.  In less than a decade, school gardens began to take hold, first across the northeast US and then nationally. Before long, Pittsburgh became one of the cities to watch.  


Early Years

In Pittsburgh, school gardens came into existence on the coattails of a related social reform initiative.  Nationally, the Playground Movement was a response to many societal ills: urban overcrowding, poverty, both child labor and juvenile delinquency, in addition to economic and health concerns. The Civic Club of Allegheny County banded with other local agencies to create Pittsburgh's first playground:


"So it was that in 1896, when the Civic Club, then recently formed and looking for work, saw the crowded streets and the yardless, forlorn homes of these children, it determined to take advantage of a law enacted the previous year and open the school yards as playgrounds. The first playground was started in a ward settled by middle class people...The playground in this district worked smoothly enough, though the teachers found that the children needed more assistance in their play than had been expected. The committee then entered two mill neighborhoods and met the real difficulty. The members having never lived next to a mill and always having had yards and doorsteps of their own, could not understand that these children did not know how to play. The committee could not believe it. Some of them do not believe it now; they think that the children played while they were not looking."  (Kennard, 310.)


Soon, the Civic Club and other organizations joined forces to found the Pittsburgh Playground Association.  During the next decade, the PPA both directed the development and managed a growing number of playgrounds, vacation schools and recreation parks.  Frequently, these public spaces included flower and vegetable gardens: some to be tended to by school children under the supervision of volunteers, others for use during Nature Study, a late 19th Century education movement to connect students to the natural world.  After the success of several such gardens, the Pittsburgh Playground Association officially established the Department of Nature Study and School Gardening in 1909, naming John Leslie Randall the Director.  


The Pittsburgh Plan

Under the innagural year of the Department of Nature Study and School Gardening, Director J. L Randall spearheaded multiple iniatives, reported in the PPA 1910 Annual Report:


  • Expanding the existing bulb and seed distribution program, not only a gardening outreach but also fundraising activity, to include all Pittsburgh Public Schools

  • Transforming an old park building into a greenhouse, potting shed and buld cellar to extend the teaching season

  • Entering into a collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh School of Education to create a training program for playground teachers, including a credit class taught by the PPA gardening supervisor for credit.









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