In Oxnard, Calif., Harrington Elementary School fourth graders are hard at work— planting seeds, turning over soil, and prepping garden beds for another bountiful harvest of vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
Nearby, teacher Anna Canby Cash and Christine Smith of Deardorff Family Farms—supplier of seedlings for the Harrington school garden—take notes and photos as eager gardeners pose questions from “How deep do we plant this seedling?” to “When will we start pulling up the lettuce?” Cash knows the questions and the answers will deepen student learning and experiences.
“With school gardens, we have the opportunity to teach a range of lessons and subjects,” says Cash, a gardening enthusiast. “Students use math, science, and biology to measure and track their seedlings, they use language arts to document their work, make observations, and even create presentations for the community, and [they] use art skills to illustrate reports about their crops.”
At the Harrington garden, now 10 years old, first- through fourth-grade students learn and share the benefits of organic farming and nutrition. “They show parents how to create healthy salads and snacks and introduce them to new vegetables like kale,” Cash says, “students also teach fellow students how to create their own gardens. It’s exciting to see how much they’ve learned.
“But you don’t have to be located in California or work with a local farmer to create a vibrant school garden,” says Sharon Danks, author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. “School gardens worldwide are helping urban, rural, and suburban schools integrate nature into learning and they’re using volunteers, educators, and local experts.”
“The key is to tap into organizations offering resources and even seeds, and fellow teachers offering up blogs and lesson plans,” says Chris Jones, a teacher at Alice Byrne Elementary in Yuma, Ariz.
Jones, whose school received a grant from the Western Growers Association, says: “The range of crops, plants, and flowers are endless and you help students understand what works best with their soil and in their environment. Once you’ve created your school garden, your students get the added benefit of little creatures wandering or flying into your garden. Students get such a big kick out from discovering their visitors, though some are more welcome than others.”
“Creating a school garden means you’re connecting with your community,” says Sharon Danks. “You can bring in local volunteers to share their knowledge and your students learn what’s invasive and what’s welcome in the green world around them, all valuable lessons to take with them.”
The students aren't the only ones learning. “The Harrington Elementary students have taught us so much about the vegetables from our farm,” says Christine Smith, Deardorff Family Farms outreach coordinator. “We never knew there were so many facts and uses for kale. Their love of learning has certainly rubbed off on the rest of us.”