School gardens: can you dig it?

By Alison Golding (principal), Juliette Reynolds (parent volunteer), and Emily Worts (parent volunteer)

There is a phenomenon spreading across our country bringing gardens to our schools, inviting our children outside to learn about their connection with their food. No matter where a school is located, one thing every school has is outdoor space. It doesn’t matter if this space is green or asphalt, horizontal or vertical. Any outdoor space is a space where plants can grow and in the process teach students important lessons from the curriculum and beyond. The lessons from a school garden are multiple, from where our food comes from and how it’s grown, to stewardship for our planet and the concerns around mass food production. Students learn that the soil is alive and how to care for it. Gardens are also living laboratories from which interdisciplinary lessons can be drawn. A school garden is a dynamic classroom where children engage in a whole new way, they encourage children to be active participants!

Thanks to parent volunteers, the enthusiasm of school staff and students, a generous start up donation from Jerrico Industrial Maintenance as well as other community donations, we have been able to offer the rich experience of a school garden to our children in Creemore!  

It all began a year ago, when the vision of a school garden began coming to life as students voted on naming the garden. The result of the naming process, “The Great Garden of Thunder” (the school’s logo is “Creemore Thunder”). The grade 8 class then class built our 9 raised beds and each class in the schools works with volunteers through the year to tend the vegetables, herbs and flowers!  

Curriculum Connections

School gardens are inherently cross-curricular and can facilitate engaging and meaningful learning opportunities for students. The ideas are truly endless, but below are but a few ideas related to how school gardens connect to different areas of the elementary curriculum.

  • Math: Students can solve real life math problems related to measurement, volume and fractions, both through measuring plant growth and through the creation of recipes with the food that they grow.
  • Science: Lessons can include topics of soil structure, photosynthesis, compost and waste management, plant and animal life cycles through integration of bat houses, butterfly gardens, “bee hotels”, insect explorations and bird feeders. The use of indoor vertical gardens are another opportunity that can create year long opportunities for learning in colder climates.
  • Health and Physical Education:  Gardens can contribute to daily physical activity through weeding, tilling, planting and harvesting which get children moving, bending, stretching and outside. Health lessons are a natural link to gardening related to healthy lifestyle choices, spending more time active in the outdoors and choosing healthy foods over junk food. Another timely trend in education is the idea of “mindfulness” and the garden creates an amazing backdrop for the practice of activities such as mindful breathing, an activity that helps students gain focus for subsequent learning.
  • Arts: This year, we have had some “Art in the garden days” where students paint the garden beds, decorate rocks, garden signs, bird feeders and picnic tables. On nice days, music classes can also take advantage of using the garden as a backdrop for playing Orff Instruments, recorders or ukuleles.  
  • Language: The garden is a great method to engage students in procedural writing, whether it is through the creation of a “how to” guide for planting and harvesting or through the development of a recipe. Students can also participate in journal writing and non-fiction research. Lastly, there are many amazing literacy links to children’s’ books, both fiction and non-fiction, that can be included garden lessons.  
  • Social studies, History and Geography:  Our spring planting for next year’s harvest included planning for a Grade 3 “Pioneer” garden box in keeping with the curriculum expectations from that grade. As part of the pioneer garden, students are growing plants that can be used for food, medicine and dye.  What an amazing way to make the curriculum come alive! There are also links to curriculum around the concepts of communities, community partners, the idea of local vs. imported, and land use.  

Additional Benefits of School Gardens

  • Lessons learned in the garden can span from Kindergarten all the way through high school.
  • School gardens provide authentic, engaging and immersive learning experiences that help students make real world connections to curriculum expectations.
  • School gardens beautify the school yard and also help students to develop a sense of pride, respect and ownership for their school.
  • Researchers Graham, Beall, Lussier, McLaughlin & Zidenberg-Cherr (2005), found the following when studying school gardens, “These programs use a multidisciplinary approach to educating students and have been shown to increase test performance, attention and enthusiasm for learning and to decrease discipline issues in the classroom.” (p. 150)
  • The school garden supports positive mental health promotion through the encouragement of a healthy lifestyle and access to spending time outdoors. At our school, there have also been more than a handful of instances where a student has been upset or sad and after a walk in the garden to pick some veggies and talk with a caring adult, the student is able to return to class focused and ready to learn. Students also gain self-confidence and a develop the sense of competence that comes along with the acquisition of new skills.
  • School gardens not only strengthen the school environment, by providing a collective space where students work side by side, but they can strengthen community bonds as they require support and knowledge from the broader community. Taking advantage of some of these opportunities can be particularly useful during winter months when there isn’t much actual “gardening” going on. In our community, there are partners eager to teach about topics such as  biodynamic gardening, stewardship, food related to healing and nutrition, pollination, soil, worm composting, organic farming and making local food widely accessible. We also have a number of parent volunteers who are amazingly engaged in working with students on garden related activities. In terms of cross grade partnerships, we are fortunate to be able to partner with our local high school, Stayner Collegiate, which has an amazing greenhouse and has kindly started our seeds for us the past two years. Some of the students at our school have had opportunities to visit the high school and there are certainly a wealth of opportunities for cross-grade partnering both within our own school and for special activities in partnership with the high school. Lastly, we are extremely proud of our “Community Resource” shelf at the school where parents can sign out resources related to subjects including gardening so that activities that can be carried over from school to their home gardens.  
  • Garden-based learning activities naturally embed the development of character, learning skills, work habits and 21st century skills, helping students to develop traits such as focus, patience, collaborative skills, creativity, responsibility, teamwork, communication skills, citizenship and perseverance through solving problems. School gardens can even nurture traits such as compassion and empathy through growing and donating produce to local food banks or charitable causes.
  • School gardens not only cover multiple curriculum areas, but they also appeal to multiple learning styles.  Looking at design and layout may appeal to students with strong visual spatial skills. Verbal-linguistic learners may be interested in documenting learning in the garden or promoting it within the community. Mathematical thinkers may enjoy the costing component. Planting, maintenance and harvest would appeal to the kinesthetic learners. Like the curriculum connections that can be made through school gardens,  connections to multiple intelligences are also endless.

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” – Audrey Hepburn

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