Beyond the Classroom

Turning Green with Opportunity: Garden-Based Learning

A growing movement that sows the seeds of successful student development.

Awash in an era of electronic gadgetry and entertainment that’s often as sedentary as it is solitary, today’s students have become practically prisoners in an indoor, insular world. Add to that the too-common attitude that “food comes from the grocery store,” and we clearly need a new way of teaching kids about life, the outdoors, their world, and themselves.

Enter the Garden

Against this backdrop, some enterprising educators in recent years have found a solution as old as human civilization itself: the garden. For example, Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, an elementary magnet school in urban Las Vegas, took 32,000 square feet of parched, dry grass and turned it into productive, cultivated gardens — outdoor “classrooms” for their students. Starting the project required lots of fundraising (of money to acquire the equipment, build and maintain the garden) and partnering with volunteers, donors, and gardening experts.

Of course, the idea of incorporating practical skills such as agriculture and horticulture into the formal education process goes back centuries, and even throughout modern times it has been promoted by such organizations as 4-H.

What are some benefits?

The results speak for themselves. On the basis of nutrition alone, research has shown time and again how children who are taught to plant, grow, and harvest food in a garden develop a taste for the fruits of their labors—a healthy habit if ever there was one!

And the benefits go beyond just healthy eating. Gardening is a physical activity. By the very act of digging, planting, using their hands and tools, and moving around to inspect and shore up their work, students working in a garden are neutralizing the effects of too much time parked in front of a screen. Even beyond that, participating with nature in cultivating plant life is a wonderful way for students to learn respect and love for our natural environment.

All told, garden-based learning can have a broad, far-reaching impact on students and enrich their lives in ways that go well beyond school.

How can I develop a garden-based curriculum?

If your school or district doesn’t already have some resources for garden-based instruction in place, it’s important to obtain buy-in from parents and administrators. Given the wide-ranging benefits and historical evidence in its favor—as well as the currently popular concern for the environment and child-nutrition—this is generally a pretty easy sell. As for funding, a number of grants are available since both the USDA and FDA have gotten behind efforts to promote garden-based education. And again, partnering with experts in gardening and agriculture never hurts either.