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Benefits of School Gardens

The outdoor classroom: beautiful, fun, educational

Which classroom in your child’s school provides a year-round enticing learning environment that offers fun, hands-on, multi-curricular activities and is beautiful, inviting, and inexpensive? The answer: the outdoor classroom.

The California Department of Education recommends that every school should have a garden, and many educators in Marin have heeded this advice. Chances are pretty good that if you take a peek into the “backyard” of your neighborhood school, you’ll see student gardeners in action. UCCE Master Gardeners provide expertise and direction to many school garden teachers and students throughout Marin. 

Aside from beautifying school campuses, it is a proven fact that pleasing outdoor environments help to reduce stress. School gardens provide a quiet respite for lunchtime and recess relaxation (for both teachers and students). Some kids like the whir of the playground; some like a bit of quiet time next to the garden fountain. Also, school gardens offer many fund-raising possibilities. For example, propagating many plants is easy and inexpensive. Sales of these plants, whether through plant fairs, to local nurseries, at school fundraisers, or wholesale, helps to fund the garden and bring in ever-needed funds for other school programs.

School gardens provide an outlet for community giving, too. Students become active community volunteers by participating first hand in drives such as bringing bouquets of flowers to assisted living facilities or growing and harvesting vegetables for food banks.

But what about those test scores? In our current climate of standardized tests and “accountability” in education, where does gardening fit in? What does gardening have to do with reading, writing, and arithmetic? With history? With technology? Like the lessons that take place inside the classroom, effective school gardens are carefully designed and executed with clear and measurable goals in mind. Under the guidance of a qualified gardening coordinator/teacher, school gardens become extensions of the indoor classrooms, thereby providing practical experience for all school subjects. This hands-on experience is extremely valuable: as many educators will attest, “if it’s been in the hand, it can more easily be in the brain.”

Still not convinced that students should put down their pencils and pick up their trowels? Then consider the following:

Reading and language: From reviewing seed catalogs to reading directions on a label to understanding details of integrated pest management, student gardeners use and expand their reading and language skills. Students research plants’ cultural requirements, they give presentations on garden-related topics, and they create and publish school garden newsletters.

Math: What is the correct ratio of fertilizer to water to feed the garden correctly? How many yards of mulch are needed to cover the garden paths two inches deep? To achieve proper spacing, how many pumpkin seeds should be planted in a 20’x20’ plot of land? If the cost of one cubic yard of soil is $20, how much will it cost to fill twelve 5’x15’x2’ raised beds?

Science: The extent to which the garden provides thorough science education is vast and obvious. The garden can provide small hands-on opportunities such as soil testing or a full-blown education in sustainable environments, botany, conservation, nutrition, or horticulture.

History and social studies: What types of plants were grown by the Native Americans? Why? How? What plants were originally grown around the California missions? What were the uses of these plants? Which plants are medicinal? What were some of the favorite plants of our ancestors and why? Why won’t plants that grow in the rainforest grow here very well? When did people start giving each other bouquets of flowers as gifts? A gardening education helps children with their critical thinking skills.

Art: Students create depictions of plant materials in various artistic media. Art classes are often held outside. Students create sculptures, stepping stones, and other “objects d’art” for the garden. 

Technology: Students take charge of internet searches for various horticultural projects, create school garden web sites, and utilize CAD software for designing garden structures such as arbors and benches. In an effort to exchange ideas, students connect, via computer, with other schools around the world that also have school gardens.

Finally, as we all know, healthy social interactions can be as critical to a student’s happiness and fulfillment as good grades. Although many gardening activities can be done individually, many projects need many helping hands at once. This leads to natural, effortless socializing, not to mention valuable lessons in cooperation and negotiation. This holds true for children from all walks of life: academic high achievers, kids from all socioeconomic levels, special needs and physically disabled children, and youth at risk. And let’s not forget: for many students, their gardening experience in school could blossom into a life-long passion.

By Marie Narlock