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Reconnecting Kids to Nature: The Benefits of School Gardens

School gardens provide a space for students to reconnect to the ecology around them and learn about natural systems that support life on our planet.

| February 2011 Web

  • "How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers" offers everything you need to know to build school gardens and to develop the programs that support them, from planning and fundraising to preparing the site and teaching in the garden.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press
  • School gardens inspire cooperation.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press
  • School gardens are often whimsical.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press
  • Students inspect the calendulas.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press
  • A harvest party.
    Photo By Stephanie Ma/Courtesy Timber Press
  • Students eating freshly harvested carrots.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press

The following is an excerpt from "How to Grow a School: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers" by Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle (Timber Press, 2010). The excerpt is from Chapter 1: Why School Gardens? 

There is rising concern over a growing divide between children and the ecology that surrounds them. More and more commonly children stay inside sitting in front of computers or video games, exploring virtual reality instead of playing and exploring out of doors. The reasons for this are well documented and widely discussed. Parents have become more protective due to a perceived fear of danger in the outdoors; the introduction of the automobile and a dramatic increase in its usage over the last century has resulted in a lack of play spaces in the streets; major demographic shifts have occurred in the last century resulting in a dramatic reduction of the number of families who live on farms; and kids are now bombarded with irresistible forms of media and electronic entertainment resulting in more time spent indoors. In urban areas, the relative scarcity of empty lots, parks, and natural open space makes connection with the natural world even more tenuous for many kids. The consequences of this disconnect have been considered by academics, journalists, educational professionals, politicians, and environmentalists. Are children gaining a sense of the systems at large if they aren’t outside exploring them? Are children learning to be independent problem solvers if they aren’t afforded the opportunity to engage their hearts, minds, and hands by building a fort somewhere outside using raw materials and their own creativity? Are they suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder and increased incidence of obesity due to a lack of unstructured play and activity outside? In response, education professors have written on the positive, lifelong effects of nature play; journalist Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and cofounded the Children and Nature Network; “No Child Left Inside” legislation is being brought before Congress; and a tapestry of environmental organizations strive to draw children and families away from the TV and into the outdoors. And what about our schools? Are we able to move beyond the plastic play structure and re-imagine the schoolyard to incorporate nature play and a small slice of the natural world? Can we build a hands-on outdoor classroom that amplifies the math, science, and language arts that are taught inside? 

School gardens provide a space for students to reconnect to the ecology around them. Gardens teach students about agriculture, how we nourish ourselves, the importance of stewardship, and an appreciation for the natural systems that support life on our planet. In this chapter we will discuss the importance of school gardens as an experiential, hands-on educational tool where core curriculum comes alive. We will explore the accepted research about the benefits of school garden programs, which extol the virtues of experimental, kid-centered, not-so-orderly gardening that fosters keen observation, critical and independent thought, and the achievement of life skills. We will also share a few thoughts on the value of unstructured and imaginative nature play in the schoolyard.

Each spring my fourth and fifth grade classes would come to the garden and inevitably beg to do “The Mississippi River,” an activity that had become a tradition in the garden. Over time I persuaded them to call it “The Colorado River” as what was formed by our experiment was much more erosive, canyonlike, and definitively western than its midwestern counterpart. At the top of the hill I would turn on the water letting it course down the sandy slope, along the beds and into the digging area. A riverbed was rudimentarily formed with a little help from the students, trowels in hand. Some of the students built towns and cities along the banks with stones and sticks, some created a large reservoir at the end, and others diverted some of the river farther away to water crops (represented by pine needles and leaves) or nurture growing towns. And the river kept running. At some point during the activity, however, the water would slow to a trickle and the students would eventually stop their bustling. Hey! What happened to the water?! We would investigate; sometimes the culprits were the increasing number of diversions to the new settlements that were happening upstream, sometimes the “snow pack” up at the top of the hill was too low to create a strong enough river to supply all those downstream. The water would occasionally get very strong, too, wiping out towns in the “flood zone” and creating braids in the river and deep canyons. 

Eventually I would turn off the water and our discussion would ensue: water is a creator of landforms, water is a resource, water is finite, and water can be a destroyer of property. What are the problems in this tiny world we’ve created? What are the solutions? How are landforms created? What is beautiful about them? This simple activity that was the epitome of fun for the students also came embedded with countless lessons that chipped away at academic requirements. And the garden was the ideal place for such a messy endeavor. Finally, the reservoir was emptied and the water brought to our native garden. We carried small buckets of sand from downhill to fill in the river bed and canyons, repairing the fissured ground.—RKP 

Garden-Based Learning and Experiential Education 

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