Educational Benefits of a School Garden

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

| May 2015

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.