By Marika Bergsund, GrowingGreat.org.
Imagine a student planting a seed in your school’s garden, and just days later seeing a tiny leaf pushing up through the soil. Tending to new plants teaches children responsibility and teamwork. It provides an opportunity to bring science, math, social studies, and language and visual arts to life through hands-on learning. Vegetable gardens let children taste the wonders of fresh food. Plus, parents, students and teachers can all enjoy the growing feeling of community that comes from sharing a new adventure. Here are just some of the many benefits of adding a garden to your school.
Nature as Teacher The experience of seeing seed, soil, water and sun come together to transform into a tiny plant is a lesson in itself, and one not soon forgotten. Learning to appreciate the wonder and power of nature is the core of an environmental education. Planting a seed teaches students about the need to protect our natural resources, since clean soil and water are necessary for the plants to grow. Children learn that we need to preserve open land for food crops, trees and enjoying nature. By tending the garden and taking care of their environment, they see that they are helping nature make the magic happen.
The Law of the Land Responsibility and Teamwork The fundamental rule of farming is that it takes responsibility and teamwork. If you don’t water your garden, your plants will die. If you don’t weed the garden, the weeds get worse and you have to work harder later to get the job done. Children learn how to be responsible by taking care of something and seeing the consequences when they don’t do the work. Gardens also provide a wealth of opportunities for teamwork. Students need to work together to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, water the plants and stay on top of the weeding. These opportunities to take responsibility and work with others can build students’ self esteem, and watching their garden grow is the sign of their success.
Hands-On Learning Gardens provide a wealth of opportunities for kids to get their hands dirty while learning lessons in many different areas of curriculum. Students can study plant anatomy and botanical life science, and those are just the beginning. Young scientists can change variables in the garden (such as watering frequency or plant spacing), then collect data on plant growth, chart the research and write up their analyses and conclusions. A creative class in California once tested whether watering lettuce with dyed-blue water changed the color of the lettuce (answer: no). For math lessons, teach students about perimeters, measurements and area as they design the layout of planting beds. Even the youngest students can learn basic measurements when they use a ruler to find the proper spacing when planting their seeds or plants. For language arts, gardens make children’s literature come alive by planting a Peter Rabbit garden (which contains plants mentioned in the Beatrix Potter classic) or scatter lupine flower seeds like Miss Rumphius did in Barbara Cooney’s book. Take a lesson from social studies class by having students plant a traditional Native American Three Sisters garden of corn, beans and squash, or plant a garden of tomatoes and exotic spices brought back from the New World to Europe by the explorers. For many students, such hands-on learning experiences are vitally important and can contribute to greater success in the classroom.
Sneaking in Nutrition Education A vegetable garden gives your school all the benefits mentioned above, with the added reward of valuable nutrition lessons on the importance and joys of eating fresh foods. New reports continue to show the alarming rise of nutrition-related health conditions such as diabetes and obesity in children and adults across the U.S. And yet, with severe budget cuts in education and increasing demands on teachers, the amount of nutrition education being taught in schools continues to decline. Many teachers simply lack the time and the resources to add another content area to the existing curriculum. In this are, the garden is a double blessing. It lets you enrich your curriculum lessons while also providing an opportunity to teach nutrition when students sample their harvest. Children are much more likely to taste a vegetable they have grown, and vegetables always taste better straight from the garden.
School gardens can take variety of forms, from the simplest containers outside a classroom to a multi-plot, in-ground garden featuring seating areas and a greenhouse. But the size of your garden should not limit its potential to contribute to the learning environment. The benefits are readily available to all, so go and plant that seed!