I want to encourage elementary students to spend time outside. We don’t have a lot of funds for field trips, and I think it would be better to have an ongoing project. I also want to involve teachers and students of all grade levels and subject areas, not just science. I’m considering a school garden, but that sounds overwhelming. —B., North Carolina
It’s hard to believe, but many students don’t know where their food originates (the supermarket??). And many have had no experience growing plants from seeds. (I was surprised when a high school teacher mentioned this, too.) They may never have had the opportunity to dig in the dirt or watch earthworms wiggle their way through soil. The lawns they play on may have been chemically treated to eliminate any interesting diversity of plants and insects. And gardening is a lifelong pursuit. So your idea of a garden could fill many needs.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s been my experience that starting small on projects is important. This should be an enjoyable, ongoing experience, not a chore or burden in which interest wanes after a short time. I worked with teachers who created a school garden, and the following advice is based on their experiences.
Ask some questions before making a commitment to the project:
- Who else is interested in this project? Be sure the school administrator and maintenance staff are on board.
- What funding is available for starting and continuing?
- Where is a good place for the garden? If your school doesn’t have a lot of open ground to turn into a garden, the alternatives could be raised beds, container gardens, or window boxes. Consider the amount of sunlight during the growing season and a water source (if water is not available outside, students will have to carry buckets of water.)
- Who will prepare the space? Is it secure from vandals or hungry deer? Should the soil be tested? (A recent NPR article describes how to deal with soil that may have been contaminated in the past.)
- Do you have (or can you get) gardening tools for smaller hands? Are there safety concerns with using tools?
- How will students with allergies be accommodated? How will the garden be accessible to students with handicaps?
- What kinds of plants will grow in your geographic location? Can volunteers or summer school classes maintain it over the summer or during breaks?
Visit nearby school gardens and ask about their experiences. Enlist community volunteers: senior citizens, garden clubs, service organizations, parents, master gardeners, state university extensions. In addition to donating materials, time, tools, and funds, their most valuable contribution will be sharing their passion, experiences, and expertise with teachers and students.
Involve students in planning the garden. They may have big ideas, so you’ll have to help them with the scale of the project and with identifying appropriate plants for your region. I’ve seen theme gardens in schools: plants mentioned in stories, butterfly gardens, native plants, pizza gardens (tomatoes, basil or other herbs, onions, peppers), salad bar gardens (lettuce, spinach, radishes, sprouts), or color themes.
A garden will need class time for maintenance. You could rotate classes to care for it or start a gardening club. Using cooperative learning roles (e.g., weeder, waterer, journalist, weather reporter) will streamline the process and help avoid confusion. Keep tools (including gloves) in a central place so that different classes can access them. Be sure that students wash their hands after gardening. Avoid chemicals that might not be safe for children.
Once your garden is established, you can include additional features. This will also keep the project fresh:
- Attracting birds with feeders or creating a butterfly/bee-friendly garden
- Adding a water feature such as a pond or birdbath
- Creating a compost bin
- Adding benches or tables
The most important feature, however, is what students learn from the experience. Gardening connects with learning goals in science, math, art, physical education, social studies, literature, and writing (particularly journaling). You can incorporate citizen science projects such as Cornell’s Project Feederwatch and BirdSleuth or Monarch Watch. Your new living laboratory can be the venue for students to investigate questions such as Are insects attracted to different flowers? or What factors influence plant growth?
If this does seem overwhelming, it is possible to do small-scale gardening in containers or on tabletops. My colleagues had students start seedlings in school and take them home as a summer project, including a journal with sketches and photographs.
Search the Internet for “school gardens” for more resources. NSTA blogs and books have described school garden projects, and I’ve created a Resource Collection on School Gardens with articles from NSTA publications.