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Gardening at School: Tips for Teachers

By Phil Kitchel posted 07-26-2022 06:00 AM

  


Garden-based learning is an exciting movement in the U.S. education system that has many benefits for students. School gardens have been shown to boost physical activity, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, improve student attitudes toward school, decrease problematic behaviors or those behaviors associated with attention deficit disorder, and effectively engage students of diverse backgrounds and learning styles (Berezowitz et al., 2015; Blair, 2009; Lautenschlager & Smith, 2007; Meinen et al., 2012). Further, garden-based learning can create memorable, hands-on learning opportunities that integrate gardening with math, science, social studies, and language arts (Graham et al., 2005; Passy, 2014).

Although school gardening offers many advantages, teachers’ knowledge of gardening and their comfort level working with students in a garden setting may make them hesitant. In this article, we provide gardening tips and curriculum integration suggestions for teachers who want to take advantage of the many benefits provided by school gardens.

You can integrate gardening with core subjects at any point in the garden’s life cycle, from early planning of the site and ordering of supplies and seeds, to planting, maintaining, and harvesting crops. To get students excited about the garden, teachers can read garden-themed books, brainstorm questions (e.g., how long does it take for different vegetables to grow, is everything in the garden edible, etc.), allow students to research questions, design garden tours for parents and other students, and create lunch menus based on vegetables grown in the garden. You can also carry out simple science experiments in which students make predictions and monitor and journal about progress (e.g., one half of the garden bed is weeded, the other is not). Further, the garden is a perfect place to study the changing seasons. Fiction writing about the garden can take endless forms, and young students can learn about and engage all five senses through guided, sensory exploration in the garden.  

The “garden” can actually be as large or small as funds and space allow, ranging from container gardens in the classroom or on the school grounds to fully integrated “edible schoolyards” incorporating multiple garden beds, seating, and more. Many grants for school gardening are available, and interested teachers are encouraged to partner with local agricultural extension offices, nurseries, and home improvement stores for educational resources and material donations.

The tips below have a common 4’x4’ raised garden bed in mind, which is large enough to accommodate a group of students around its perimeter, but small enough to be manageable and, most importantly, for the center of the bed to be accessible for garden maintenance.

  • If possible, split into smaller groups (ideally with multiple adults to assist) to make behavior management easier.
  • Clearly review expectations for behavior as well as directions for the activity before starting any gardening. Remind students where their feet should be (not in the garden beds), how to safely use tools, how to interact with classmates and adults, and so on.
  • Modeling garden activities is very effective. If the task of the day is planting seeds, demonstrate to students the full process—from reading the seed packet (for older students) to preparing the soil, poking a small hole with your finger, and labeling the location—before handing over any seeds/plants/tools.
  • Make planting seeds with students easier by marking where to plant with string (for rows) or individual wood craft sticks stuck in the soil. Older students can measure and mark spacing themselves.
  • Before planting, it is usually a good idea to give seeds to each student as well as facilitate a discussion about the seeds by asking the following questions:

    What do these seeds need to grow?
    Which plants will these seeds grow into? Do we eat those plants?
    How would you describe the seed using your senses (sight, touch, smell)?

  • Modeling behavior in general is very important. If you’re enthusiastic about gardening/nature/bugs, students will reflect that enthusiasm. If you’re annoyed by the weather/nature/bugs, students will reflect that, too.
  • If possible, end garden time with a taste test of something. This gets easier as gardens mature! Students will always be most excited about tasting in the garden, so a bite of an herb leaf, a slice of pepper, or a cherry tomato is a memorable reward for a job well done—and helps meet our goals of introducing new, healthy foods to students.
  • Keep a few “back pocket” activities in mind for students who finish early. These can be as simple as guided weeding, watering, or harvesting. You can also bring a garden-themed book to read once everyone is finished or lead a group discussion at the end about the experience.

As we have written elsewhere, despite the challenges that gardening with students may present, teachers overwhelmingly find it to be a worthwhile and enriching experience for all involved and encourage others to “just do it!” (Cramer & Tichenor, 2021). Even a garden that fails to produce a bumper crop, is plagued by pests, or struggles during a dry spell presents ample opportunities for learning and reflection. We encourage you to start small, collaborate, get your hands dirty, and, of course, have fun!

By Sarah Cramer and Mercedes Tichenor

Dr. Cramer is an Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems at Stetson University. Her research explores the potential of elementary school garden programs to serve as change agents in both the food system and the public education system.

Dr. Tichenor is a Professor of Education at Stetson University. Her research interests include best practices in education, teacher professionalism, and school gardening.

Resources

For more information about the garden-based learning movement, check out these organizations:

Life Lab

The Edible Schoolyard Project

KidsGardening

For children’s books to read in the garden, check out this website:

Growing Good Kids Book Awards

For books about garden curriculum integration, check out these resources:

The Growing Classroom: Garden-Based Science and Nutrition Activity Guide by Roberta Jaffe and Gary Appel

Ripe for Change: Garden-Based Learning in Schools by Jane Hirschi

References

Berezowitz, C. K., Bontrager Yoder, A. B., & Schoeller, D. A. (2015). School gardens enhance academic performance and dietary outcomes in children. Journal of School Health, 85(8), 508–518.

Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden: An evaluative review of the benefits of school gardening. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(2), 15–38.

Cramer, S. E. & Tichenor, M. S. (2021). Just do it: Teachers’ perspectives on garden-based   learning. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 57(3), 138-142.

Graham, H., Beall, D. L., Lussier, M., McLaughlin, P., & Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2005). Use of school gardens in academic instruction. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37(3), 147–151.

Lautenschlager, L., & Smith, C. (2007). Understanding gardening and dietary habits among youth garden program participants using the Theory of Planned Behavior. Appetite, 49(1), 122–130.

Meinen, A., Friese, B., Wright, W., & Carrel, A. (2012). Youth gardens increase healthy behaviors in young children. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 7, 192–204.

Passy, R. (2014). School gardens: Teaching and learning outside the front door. Education 3-13, 42(1), 23–3

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