Have you ever asked your students where they think their food comes from only to get the response, "From the store!" Wouldn't it be great not only for your students to have a better understanding of where their food comes from, but to take an active role in growing some of it themselves.
As an environmental educator, I've seen first-hand how educational and fun gardening with children can be. From watcing a little girl's surprise and wonder as juice and seeds trickle down her chin upon biting into a Sungold tomato to the little boy who saved me the seeds in his apple because he was proud he knew what they were, I believe that gardening gives students something they can't get in the classroom- hands-on activities that help long-term memory acquisition.
Christine Palermo is a Head Start teacher in Philadelphia who loves how her school's garden has given the children extra responsibility and an opportunity to explore outside.
"The kids love to work with their hands and play in the soil and explore these new things," she says. "It has opened up their eyes and made them more curious of what is around them."
Whether it's a tiny patch of land or a sprawling green space, one thing is clear: Gardens are an incredibly valuable educational tool. And while starting a garden might require jumping through some administrative hoops, it will be well worth the work.
One way to start is to rally community members and present a plan that shows how the garden will be tended year-round. You'll also have to think about how the project will be funded and where you will put down roots. After you get the okay from your superiors, then the fun of planning and planting begins, and before you know it, you'll be using your new garden for lessons every day. Here's how to get started.
First Steps to Fresh Veggies
One of the first things you should do when planning your garden is to gather a group-teachers, community members, and parents-interested in working on your gardening project. Community support is vital, particularly over the summer months, to make sure your garden gets the care it needs year-round.
Once you get your group established, designate roles for each member. Find out who among them is an experienced gardener. Does anyone have connections to a landscaping or nursery business? Perhaps a parent in the group or summer staff can be in charge of organizing the children to take care of their garden over the summer.
After you find enough folks to help you, you should start thinking about where you want your garden to be located. If you are planning on growing on school property, all you might need is administrative approval. If the land you want to grow on is near the school, you will need to find out who owns the land and obtain permission to use the property for a garden.
Some of the environmental considerations when trying to find the best location for a school garden are how much sun the area gets and whether the soil is healthy. For the best results, your plot should get at least eight full hours of sun each day. If you have a shady spot, you might want to consider removing fences or tree branches to increase light. If you will be planting directly into the soil, you should get it tested to make sure there is no lead or other toxic contaminants.
Your green space may be limited or you may find you have chemicals in your soil; in these situations, consider container gardening or creating raised beds. Even if you are surrounded by concrete, containers and raised beds will offer you the opportunity to grow a variety of flowers and vegetables.
Funding any school project is always a key concern. If you're lucky, your school's administration will fully support your gardening project. If not, there are plenty of ways to find financial support. First, ask parents if they are willing to donate money or help organize a fundraiser. You could also apply for grants to fund your project.
Once you've got all the logistics sorted out, you should contact your administration to get approval for your school garden. You could consider asking permission in the very beginning stages, but principals and other administrators will likely tell you to investigate and report back. If you've got a plan in place, your administrators will see how serious you are about the project and that you are taking an organized approach.
After you get the okay, it's time to involve students in the planning and planting so they become committed to their garden from the beginning.
Younger children might also need a little background information for them to fully understand what a school garden means. You could do lessons on vegetables and flowers, including growing herbs or flowers in the classroom so children can see the wonder of watching a plant grow from a seed.
Planning and Planting
Now the fun begins! One of the first things you should do at this stage is draw a working map of your garden. Make a wish list of items you'll need and a list of everything you want to grow. Some useful tools include a garden rake, a pitchfork, and enough trowels for all of your students. Once you've got your map and lists, you can start plotting out where you'd like to plant everything. Also, start thinking about whether you want to plant items from seed or start with seedlings.
If you're a little nervous about starting a large garden, a good size to start with is about four feet by eight feet. With this size, most of your students can have a spot around the perimeter of the garden for demonstrations or for working. This size garden will work well whether you are gardening in the ground or using raised beds.
If you and your group are new to gardening, check with your local community garden or nursery to find out what grows best in your climate and when to plant. Some good vegetables to start with are usually lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes. The lettuce will come up before the end of the school year, so you could have a salad party with your class. Carrots and tomatoes take more time, but can likely be harvested when you return to school in September. As for fruit, try getting some everbearing strawberry seedlings. These plants will produce several harvests of fruit and provide a delicious treat for your students.
A great resource for guiding your gardening is usually right at your fingertips, on the back of your seed packets. There, you can find a plant hardiness map that will tell you when to plant and information about how much sun and water each plant needs.
Make a calendar of when you will plant each item and designate classroom or after-school time for the children to plant and tend the garden. Keep in mind that you may have some plants that don't make it, a situation that creates a great teachable moment (more on these moments below) for students to figure out the mystery of what happened.
A Teaching Garden
Once you've got your garden up and running, you can really start using it as a valuable educational tool. Just by planning and planting, you'll already be teaching the children about what a plant needs to grow and where food comes from.
You could also use the garden to teach basic math skills in both the planting and harvesting stages. Students can count how many plants are in the garden, or how many tomatoes turned red from one plant. Older children can use the garden to think about cost analysis, using simple addition and subtraction. Students can also do a comparison between how many seeds they plant and how many actually grow or practice sorting the different vegetables or seeds based on various characteristics.
A school garden provides built-in nutrition education. Children can pick fruits and vegetables for a healthy afternoon snack, and the garden can provide hands-on education about the food groups.
Children also get lessons in history through gardening. You might grow a "three sisters" garden, which was a Native American companion planting technique that included corn, beans, and squash. In this planting arrangement, children plant the corn first and allow it to get about four inches high. Next, they plant the beans and squash. As the beans grow, students help train the bean vines around the corn and watch how the squash plants grow to help keep weeds at bay.
The garden is also a good way to teach students about giving back. If you are growing food, you could donate some or all of the garden's bounty to a food pantry that helps fight hunger.
The possibilities of lessons learned from your school garden are endless. As you watch the fruits of your labor grow, you can be sure you've helped create a tool for experiential learning that will teach teamwork, cooperation, and a life-long respect for the environment.
Get That Grant!
Here are some common goals for school garden programs. Borrow and adapt them for your grant applications.
- To expose students to hands-on environmental education
- To enhance the curriculum by connecting lessons and activities to the natural world
- To provide students with the opportunity to grow and eat fresh produce
- To offer parents an opportunity to participate in the program and engage with the school community
What If My Principal Says "No"?
- Ask him or her to tour visit successful local school gardens with you.
- Recruit teachers and parents as school garden advocates.
- Secure a small starter grant.
- Identify long-term sources of funding for the program.
- Recycled five-gallon
- Plastic pots
- Livestock water troughs
- Wooden containers
- Terra cotta pots
- Old tubs or other retired recycled containers
Adapted from How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete guide for Parents and Teachers (Timber Press, 2010)