Planting a school garden is a great equalizer: Teachers get dirty, parents break a sweat and kids, for once, have a height advantage. The benefits of gardens are extensive–and sometimes unanticipated. Gardens bring students outside and encourage them to eat more vegetables. Special-needs children in particular benefit from the sensory experience and can participate equally because there are no tests or measurements other than rainfall and plant height. For inner-city children, a garden might be their first connection to nature. And all student horticulturists are too engrossed in the work to notice they’re learning as they dig, plant and harvest.
Planning to Plant
GrowingGreat is a California-based organization that helps schools plan, implement and maintain gardens. According to the group’s founder, Marika Bergsund, school gardens can be grown anywhere, regardless of climate. All you need is a sunny area, healthy soil, water and the vision to bring a garden to life.
While adding new school-garden and nutrition-education programs in ten Los Angeles-area schools, GrowingGreat has varied its approach to each one. Some already had large plots available for planting, while others had to use large containers outside of classrooms. GrowingGreat uses these schools as examples of how success can be reached by many different formats or methodologies.
Anyone interested in starting a school garden just needs to plan before planting. “Include students in the planning, start small and leave room to grow,” says Bergsund. “A few containers with lettuce or a small plot are a perfect beginning.”
Feeding Hungry Minds
Dr. Antonia Demas of the Food Studies Institute in New York created a nationwide organization, Food is Elementary, to provide food educators and curricula to all grades and to at-risk and special-needs children. “Touching, tasting and experiencing makes lessons more meaningful than books or blackboards,” says Demas. She also notes that the increased nutritional value of the food alone promotes better behavior and better grades.
“One outstanding benefit of the garden, especially for those who may struggle in school, is the sense of personal accomplishment they feel from taking care of something successfully and watching it grow,” says Bergsund, “That’s one of the main reasons that garden education is so successful.”
According to Bergsund, these suggestions will help schools incorporate gardens into standard educational areas:
Language Arts: Literature brings gardens to life–and vice versa. Children can read books such as Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, or The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart, and then go out and plant what they’ve read about.
Math: Measuring and data collection are natural garden activities. Young students can use rulers to measure space between plants, and older students can calculate square footage, plot plant growth and design garden layouts.
Social Science: Planting a garden with a Native-American or Colonial-American theme brings history and agriculture right to the schoolyard.
Science: Students can measure rainfall, air and soil temperatures, and angles of the sun to learn about weather and seasons. They’ll witness the life cycles of plants and insects. A garden also provides lessons in keeping our air, land and water clean.
Business: Most schools with gardens fully support their project by selling produce, flowers and student-made salad dressings. Some schools sell seeds saved from garden plants in packets also made by students.
For more information on the benefits of a school garden and how you can start one at your child’s school, visit www.myhealthyschool.com. Also check out the National Gardening Association, which offers tips for starting and maintaining school gardens, ideas for curriculum and suggestions for unique fund-raising programs. Last fall, Kiwi magazine partnered with Annie’s Homegrown to donate $35,000 to the National Gardening Association in support of its Adopt a School Garden program. For more information, visit Annie’s Homegrown.
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By Mary Talalay, Kiwi magazine