Educational Benefits of a School Garden

What taking the classroom outdoors and into a school garden can do for students.

School Garden

Connecting an outdoor garden to classroom curriculum could help students tap into types of learning they can’t indoors.

Photo by Fotolia/Juliet Photography

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How can we broaden our students’ minds inside of the current school system? Ripe for Change (Harvard Education Press, 2015), by Jane S. Hirschi takes a look at one way it can be done by introduction garden-based learning into educational systems. Hirschi takes a big-picture view of the school garden movement and the state of garden-based learning in public K-8 education. This excerpt, which explains the benefits that come from taking the classroom to the school garden, is from Chapter 2, “What Learning Looks Like in the Garden: Making Connections Across Subjects and Grade Levels.”

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Without an explicit requirement to incorporate the school garden into academic lessons and often without much support in terms of preparation or supplies, teachers are still making the garden part of where and how they teach. They are integrating garden-based learning into lesson plans, organizing the class for lessons outside, and finding ways to connect their students’ outdoor learning experience to the curriculum back in the classroom. Teachers in all schools, but especially in high-need schools, must plan these lessons within the scope and sequence of their core academic subjects. Teachers are mindful of how critical their choice of class activities and projects can be for students struggling to master reading, writing, math, and science concepts. They perceive the school garden as a key tool in teaching the academic skills and content they’re responsible for imparting. For them, the classroom extends beyond the walls of the building to include the garden in the schoolyard.

These teachers have discovered that the school garden is uniquely suited to help children learn. It provides a context for understanding both simple and complex concepts (volume and area, for instance), tracking changes over time, and distinguishing between biotic and abiotic. It is a place where students practice skills like measurement, scientific observation, informative writing, and poetry. Of course, these are skills that can be taught in many ways, but teachers find that the school garden is a particularly engaging environment for their students. Garden-based learning can bridge academic subjects in a way that not only imparts skills and content but also helps students understand why these skills are important and how they can be useful. Further, the edible learning garden allows teachers to “fold in” health and food education without competing with core academic time. The schoolyard garden is a sensory-rich change in environment from the classroom, and it is just outside the door.

Teachers point out that the value of the garden experience increases as students spend more time in it. So a challenge for teachers is to plan garden lessons that don’t stand alone but rather are part of a series of visits that allow students’ garden experience to accumulate. For a child’s learning to flow seamlessly from classroom to garden, a teacher must identify multiple points where the curriculum connects to the garden. These multiple opportunities to take lessons outside offer teachers a way to both help their students understand a concept or practice a skill and to still be sure they’ve covered “what’s on the test.” Even a modest garden comprising a few raised beds and a compost bin in an urban schoolyard provides ample opportunity for children to see things happening, to get excited about writing, and to practice observing or using their reasoning and creativity to make sense of the complex systems in nature. A teacher may begin using the garden based on an intuition that this is a valuable experience for students, and then discover multiple curriculum connections to not only justify, but demand, a deeper commitment to garden-based learning.

Teaching Science In the Learning Garden

A report from the National Research Council confirms that children learn science by doing it and further, that a range of approaches is necessary for children to understand science. The connections for science knowledge are strongest in the life sciences—plant growth, soil, living and nonliving things, for instance—but science skills such as observation, inquiry, and problem solving are natural and obvious connections to every area of science, and at every grade level.

Susan Agger, a science specialist in Cambridge Public Schools, describes a seventh grader who surprised her with his knowledge of the fauna in his urban environment. He had first learned about the common cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) in the school garden four years earlier when he was a third grader. Now, he told Susan, “I see them all the time when I’m on the field at football practice.” Since first learning about the butterfly, he had learned the names of all kinds of insects that he noticed as he went about his day. An initial experience, not even a formal part of the lesson, had sparked this boy’s curiosity and initiated his personal four-year project to build a body of knowledge about the natural world around him. “Kids do see a lot in the city, and they do make a connection,” Susan says. “They’re building outdoor experience. That’s one of the greatest values of the garden . . . it’s often where those initial, personal experiences are going to happen. There’s always something that they notice on their own that they’re going to be curious about. I think kids’ natural curiosity is really valuable. And in the garden, they can’t help but be curious! It pulls them along.” Not infrequently, spending time in the school garden helps deepen students’ observations, as it did for this young man who continued asking questions and looking for answers long after the initial garden experience was over.

Recent research shows that, contrary to previous thought, most children begin school with significant knowledge of the natural world, even if they don’t have the language to describe what they know. Kindergarten teacher Neal Klinman notes that for his students the school garden differed from more general outdoor education because they spent enough time in the garden to become really familiar with it, and that in turn helped his students become more adept at observation. “We could just walk around the neighborhood and look at the beautiful colors, but [instead] we keep going back to the garden from the summer to the autumn, and we see the changes. It’s inspiring to go out and see the kids really looking.” The practice of really looking and the opportunity to come back to the same place to notice how it changes over time not only expands students’ base of knowledge, it also teaches them skills they will need throughout their education, in English language arts as well as in science.

Deep observation in the garden connects to language, to naming and describing what one sees and experiences. Improving students’ literacy, developing their speaking skills, and expanding their scientific vocabulary are all goals that teachers find the school garden helps them meet. “We very pointedly integrate [garden time] with literacy, introduce math concepts . . . we’re trying to weave it together,” explains Neal. “It’s more than just exploring. To make it more rigorous, we take our science notebooks. We look at the color words and how to spell them, copy some of the text from the signs in the garden, utilize the alphabet garden along the fence, give attention to cooperation as kids work in teams and have a job to do together . . . those are all really important skills to practice.” Garden-based learning is an effective means to help children put words to their growing knowledge of nature.

Spotlight on Third Grade

Understanding the role that plants play in ecosystems is a key concept in life sciences and a standard unit in elementary science curricula. Wisconsin Fast Plants (Brassica rapa) have been widely used in classrooms since 1987 to show students the full cycle of a plant’s development through all its stages. From planting to flower, the Fast Plant matures in only two weeks, giving classroom teachers a nearly foolproof method for demonstrating a plant’s life cycle—and one that conveniently fits in a teacher’s typical scope and sequence timeline. Traditional Brassica varieties, on the other hand—broccoli, collard greens, and kale, for instance—take a full season to mature and are not as well adapted to life on a windowsill.

Third-grade teacher Kelly Petitt teaches Plant Growth and Development every spring. As part of that unit, Kelly’s third graders plant Wisconsin Fast Plants in the classroom. Most of Kelly’s third graders are unfamiliar with seeing plants grow in gardens; there just aren’t that many backyard gardens in the dense, urban neighborhoods where they live. Their school has a learning garden, however, and Kelly has devised a way to incorporate the garden to expand her students’ concept of plant life. On the same spring day that her students plant the Fast Plants inside, they also plant kale outside in the school garden. Within a few days, they observe the cotyledon leaves on the Fast Plants, and very soon after that the Fast Plant buds develop. Each day they also take a walk outside to the schoolyard garden to examine the place where they planted their kale seeds. Not until the Fast Plants already have flowers do they start to see the first signs of germinated kale seeds unfolding in the garden soil. “Their minds are blown to have that comparison to an actual plant life cycle!” Kelly says. But what they get from that comparison is more than plant-part knowledge; they experience firsthand the impact of the environment on plants growing under natural conditions. The comparison between slow growth outside and speedy growth inside drives home the fact that plants can be bred for very particular conditions.

Taking a full class of twenty-five to thirty students into the learning garden requires strategies and forethought. “You have to have a really strong sense of what you want to happen when you take kids outside,” Kelly explains. “What you want them to be doing, where you want them to be. It’s different, and it’s really exciting for them. What I often do at the beginning of the year is to go outside just to let the kids explore. So we go out to the garden and we observe it. We sit and listen and smell . . . ‘what do we notice in the garden?’ I spend a couple of sessions letting them know the expectations, starting when we’re inside. Then they can explore and poke around on their own.”

Like the seventh grader whose introduction to a common butterfly in the learning garden sparked an interest that was still going strong four years later, or a kindergartener who begins to put words to her experience of the natural world, Kelly’s third-grade students are building their capacity as learners through the school garden. “I want my third graders to leave me at the end of year knowing all of the content that I’m responsible for but also what to do if you want to know something,” Kelly explains. “If there’s something that you want to know, how do you go about finding out the answer . . . how do you test it out for yourself? I let them choose where they’re going to look for things growing. And sometimes when they don’t find things growing, it’s as powerful as when they do find it . . . It’s helping kids see that you’re learning things that will serve [you] your whole life.”

Spotlight on Middle School

The majority of garden-based learning happens in the elementary grades, but that’s not to say that the learning garden doesn’t have value for older students, too. In fact, the edible learning garden is particularly beneficial in meeting the unique academic and social challenges young people face in these years.7 The ages between eleven and fourteen are a particularly vulnerable time for young people as they transition from childhood to teenage years, not firmly embodying either. Students’ future academic course is often charted in these critical years. In addition, as they gain more autonomy over their food choices, they establish eating habits that often take them into adulthood, if not through their whole lives. Most obviously, they are particularly sensitive, often vulnerable, to peers in both healthy and unhealthy ways.

Donna Peruzzi and Madhvi Patil are two middle school science teachers in Cambridge who have found ways to integrate their school learning garden in their science curriculum. Donna teaches genetics to seventh and eighth graders every fall. She uses the garden to help her students understand plant reproduction by looking for sexual and asexual examples among the plants. The lesson begins in the classroom when Donna gives a short introduction to explain the two different ways that plants reproduce and makes sure her students know what indicators to look for once they’re outside. “Then,” Donna says, “we go out looking for them. Once kids figure it out—‘oh, flowers mean sexual reproduction!’—it gets easier.” Strawberry plants are an example of both sexual (via the flowery sexual organs) and asexual (the runners, or stolons). “I loved going to the strawberry patch because that’s where we see both. I point out one or two of the runners; then kids would look for others.” Until recently, Donna taught this unit in the spring, when students had an opportunity to see the small, still-green strawberry fruit forming in the center of the flower. Yet when her district moved the unit to the fall, she discovered that the fruits and flowers in the fall garden still provided adequate examples for her students to explore the difference between sexual and asexual plant reproduction. Donna notes that visual examples of plant reproduction are increasingly accessible to her as a teacher through technology in her classroom. Yet she feels that physically being in the garden on a “scavenger hunt” for plant reproduction indicators is much more engaging for her students. “It’s like a mini–field trip, but no permission forms needed! Being out there just makes it so much more memorable.”

Students bring their science journals with them to the garden to draw and describe what they find and to write down any questions they have. Back in the classroom, Donna uses her students’ questions as prompts for further discussion. “Kids will see different things. I keep it open where they go, so long as they are on the paths and not stepping on the plants. If they’re drawn to different parts of the garden, they’re going to see different things. Even though I want it to be flexible, I still want them all to understand we have a purpose for being out there.” Taking this lesson to the garden gives Donna’s students a vivid example of a basic biological principle. It’s also a concept that is likely to be asked on the state science assessment, Donna notes. As her students review material later in the school year, Donna tells them to “remember the strawberry patch.” It’s an anchor experience that helps them retrieve the material they need to know.

Madhvi is a seventh-grade science teacher at a Cambridge middle school across town. She uses her school learning garden to illustrate the transfer of energy through matter, a theme running through her seventh- grade curriculum. The garden helps her students understand the concept of energy when they see its impact: how the energy from the sun is stored in plants or seeds (matter) throughout the winter and is then released as they resume growing in the spring. “It’s all in the roots, actually,” Madhvi explains. “That is the most important thing in that short period of time, to grow a root system. Basically what happens is the leaves come out, they make their sugars, and then they are all stored in the root for the next time around. Frost comes and the plant goes into hibernation, but life stays in the root.”9 Because her students grow a variety of grains in their school garden, Madhvi also uses the lesson to reflect on the impact that plant diversity has historically had on food systems.

Garden-based learning, Madhvi finds, helps her seventh graders stay connected to new concepts introduced in middle school by grounding them in a context that they are familiar with and comfortable in: the school garden. It’s not uncommon for middle school students to lose interest in science or feel like they can’t master it, Madhvi notes. Her students are being introduced to physics, chemistry, and a more sophisticated level of life science than what they were used to as elementary students. Part of Madhvi’s job is to keep her students engaged in the face of these challenges, and she uses her school garden to help her do that. The garden, she points out, “is accessible to students of all levels in the classroom. They can understand what’s happening, they can do it— and that’s confidence!” Her students come from elementary schools with school gardens (CitySprouts is the districtwide school garden program), so Madhvi uses their familiarity with the learning garden to introduce them to the more demanding middle school curriculum. It also helps Madhvi explain the relationship between the three seventh-grade science units she teaches by “keeping energy and matter constant through those units.” Madhvi would like to see technology incorporated into her students’ garden experience as a means for students in different schools to share information and results about what they’re learning in the garden. Technology, in Madhvi’s view, is not an alternative to garden-based education but rather a potential enhancement to it.

The learning garden has other benefits for middle school students beyond the academic connection. Donna searches for a word to describe the particular mind-set of this “in-between” age: “Unpredictable comes to mind, even in the same child from one day to the next,” she finally settles on, laughing. “But still curious. They have this battle of wanting to be responsible for things and be treated like an adult but also not wanting too much responsibility . . . they still want to play! They have some ideas of what they think about things, but they’re not too old to change their minds.” Learning in the garden is important for her students, she continues, “because they’re still in that transition, they still need opportunities for that outdoor . . . almost play. They don’t get as many times to be outside. If I can build in just five minutes for them to relax at the end of the lesson, I think that’s important. For many kids in an urban environment, just being outside under a tree and in the grass is just not often happening for them anymore. Whether they’re inside playing video games, or outside on an asphalt court playing basketball, [being in the garden] is just a different experience from their day-to-day lives.”

Teaching Writing In the School Garden

Arguably, nothing is more valued in schools than fluency in reading and writing. Because a significant portion of writing instruction is usually based on material that students generate, and because students who are engaged in their topic often find more to say about it, teachers seek out environments and experiences that inspire students’ reflection. Teachers turn to the school garden for all kinds of writing. They use the sensory-rich school garden as a focus for descriptive writing like poetry and narrative. Planting, harvesting, and eating become springboards for explaining sequences clearly (first, then, last). Students learn informational writing by recording observations and questions in their science journals. They create math word problems based on practical tasks in the garden, such as how many garlic bulbs can be planted in a given space, or how much soil it will take to fill a new raised garden bed. Writing in the garden helps to connect literacy to subjects that have traditionally been taught separately, such as building scientific vocabulary or making persuasive arguments. The learning garden provides a practical reason for teachers to expand the amount of informational reading students do throughout their elementary and middle school years by making literacy a more explicit expectation in science and social studies. In other words, in the learning garden students not only read to know, they also write to tell.

Spotlight on First Grade

First-grade teacher Caitlin O’Donnell has been using her school garden for several years. At first, the lessons Caitlin taught in the garden were extensions of her science units. Her students made lists of living and nonliving things they found in the garden, for instance, or explored the compost for worms and other decomposers. Over time, however, Caitlin shifted the focus of her students’ time in the learning garden to writing instruction. “I started moving toward just letting kids have more experiences in the garden even if it wasn’t related to a science standard or a social studies standard. Any of those experiences [in the garden] are rich fodder for writing, and not just science writing. It’s a different experience that a lot of kids just don’t have in their daily lives. As a teacher, I do Writers Workshop every day,” she explains. “You may write in a variety of genres but to all of that, kids need to bring some material—some ideas.”

Every week, Caitlin schedules time to take her class out to the garden. With the garden coordinator’s assistance, she often divides the class into two smaller groups or “stations.” One group might dig in a garden bed looking for worms and other insect life. The other group might plant (garlic in the fall, for instance, or salad greens in the spring), harvest 34 ri pe for change a variety of herbs to taste back in the classroom, or sift compost from the bin and then add it to a garden bed. The activities the first graders do in the garden become topics for morning meeting or writing time, or simply points of reference during science back in the classroom. “It means that every week the kids have stories to tell and that they could write about, looking for worms, pulling up the stakes, making apple cider,” Caitlin says. “To dig, water, to do the work of a gardener in their own way . . . that’s what brings action to their stories. They’re urban kids and they might not get to have experiences with plants and dirt and insects at home.”

Garden time has increasingly become a source of material for Caitlin’s classroom instruction. For some children, the garden experience is a critical point of engagement necessary for a literacy assignment. Caitlin described one such time, when a student’s deep interest in the garden helped her find a reason to write a personal narrative in the Writers Workshop curriculum Caitlin uses. “She was a reluctant writer . . . she just wasn’t into ‘small moments,’” Caitlin remembers. “She was a smart kid and very articulate, and she was totally obsessed with the garden. Every day she’d discover something new. She loved to know the names of the plants. So when it came time to write our nonfiction “All About” books and she realized she could write about the garden, she was really motivated, [was] really productive, and wrote a wonderful book with lots of illustrations. It was a great book and a great experience for her to discover something she was knowledgeable about.” For this young girl, the garden gave her a reason to write.

Garden-based learning can also provide valuable opportunities for children to practice speaking skills. Caitlin’s students enter her classroom with a broad range of ability levels, including in communication competency. Like many teachers, Caitlin finds that the garden facilitates important communication and interpersonal skills: being able to work in groups, to listen to ideas and then explain them, and to integrate information from a variety of media, such as the complex and engaging medium of natural phenomena.11 Caitlin has found that working in the garden creates rich opportunities for conversation and for vocabulary development. “It makes a difference to talk while they’re working,” she says. “‘Let’s see if we can find some roots,’ or ‘let’s see what we can find that’s living and nonliving while we’re digging in the soil.’ You can have a discussion about it right there.”

Garden writing prompts can happen inside the classroom, too. At the beginning of the year, Caitlin’s students helped tend the corn growing in a small raised bed next to the playground. Later in the fall, they harvested the popping corn with Greg, the garden coordinator at their school. Then, on a mid-winter afternoon, Greg visited the classroom with the now-dried corn. Greg reminded the students that the corn came from their garden. He explained how there was moisture in the hard kernels, and when they got hot the kernels burst open into popcorn. The students helped Greg get their corn ready for the popper and witnessed the transformation for themselves. “We pulled the kernels off like wiggly teeth— something first graders know really well,” Caitlin says. “We put them in the popper—it was super exciting! Then we ate it.” Later that week, Caitlin built a writing lesson around the experience.

The popcorn activity tied in a number of key concepts for Caitlin’s students. First, the harvested corn reminded students of their time in the garden throughout the fall. They observed how the dried corn changed from a plant in the garden to something they can eat. They learned how corn can transform again from a hard, yellow seed to puffy white popcorn. They celebrated their harvest with popcorn as the special treat. Lastly, Caitlin used it all as a prompt in her writing lesson on explaining events in sequence. “We were doing procedural texts then, and it worked out really well to think about what the steps would be.”

Making Connections to Edible Education

Teachers approaching their school gardens for academic instruction also recognize the edible education that happens in the learning garden even when it’s not the focus of the lesson. Teachers who have made the school garden integral to their standards-based lessons still find time for tasting and eating and talking about food.

In Kelly Petitt’s garden lesson, the focus is on plant science. Kelly directs her students’ attention to the content: understanding the stages of plant growth, for instance, and the impact of the environment. But she is well aware that they are also learning about food by planting kale. Her students will get the opportunity to taste it before school lets out in June, and many of them will harvest the mature crop in the fall. “When we’re out in the garden and getting our hands dirty, it really solidifies that connection that plants grow from seeds. To see that and have that ownership is really powerful, and they start to build that connection with where food comes from. Kids are so disconnected about how their food gets to them,” she added. “Being able to do this here in our garden and, in a broader sense [learning that] there are people growing food all over the world, makes it real for them. It’s about knowing how the world works. Food comes from farms and gardens—that’s important for them to know.”

In garden-based learning, tasting can become so intertwined with the rest of the garden experience that it almost becomes invisible. But that doesn’t make it less powerful. “How many of them would be eating chives if they weren’t picking them in the garden?” Caitlin asks about her first graders. “They’re obsessed with chives! I think it’s because they actually have an interesting flavor and it tastes like something. And,” she adds, “they can name it.”

In Donna Peruzzi’s school, the garden is right outside the cafeteria. Students can see it from their lunch tables. For the past several years, her school has participated in cafeteria composting, where food waste is collected and trucked to a compost processing facility. While students don’t see the actual composting of their school food waste, she’s sure that they have a better understanding of the process from having composted on a small scale in their school garden.

There is also the benefit of simply giving students more time outside. Neal Klinman is aware of just how important this is for urban children. “Even living in the city you can see the changes in the seasons, looking at the trees . . . but there are some kids who really, literally, never get a chance to run their fingers through the dirt,” he says. “And even if they do get that opportunity, most kids want more! Somebody who has a garden at home wants to bring their experience, their expertise, to school. And kids who don’t have that at all get a chance to get dirty and sift through a worm pile or shuffle through the leaves.”


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Ripe for Change: Garden-Based Learning in Schools, by Jane S. Hirschi and published by Harvard Education Press, 2015.