Learning to Grow

How school gardens help children learn and grow


In schools, community gardens have the potential to make tremendous impacts on students’ lives, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Gardens can be used as part of the academic curriculum, where students can learn about plant biology or historical farming techniques; or as an extracurricular, teaching students a practical skill while at the same time giving them something to do after school.

School gardens have been around since the 19th century. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many schools had gardens in their school yards. They became an integral part of the war effort during World War I, providing a source for local food. In the 1990’s the school garden movement made a comeback, led by, Alice Waters, a famous chef in Berkeley, California. In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, Waters founded The Chez Panisse Foundation supporting an “education program that uses food to nurture, educate, and empower youth”. In 1995, in collaboration with the King Middle School in Berkeley, the Chez Panisse Foundation built a garden in the school yard and created a curriculum that was integrated into the academic curriculum, using both the garden and the kitchen. The organization has since changed its name to The Edibile Schoolyard Project, with sites around the country.

Based on the success of the Edible Schoolyard Project and other school gardens in California, in 2006, the California government passed the California School Instructional Garden Act, providing $15 million in grants to sustain existing school gardens and develop new ones.

The success of the school garden movement has spread outside of California. In New York City today, there are 120 registered school gardens, and an estimated total of 400 school gardens across the city. GreenThumb, a program of the New York City Parks Department, oversees the community gardens in New York, providing resources and materials to gardens in the city. Andrew Barrett, the School Garden Operations Associate at GreenThumb, points out the benefits of gardening through experiential learning. “Gardens are important because they get kids outside and working. The benefits of being able to not just sit in a classroom and learn about plants but actually go outside and see them grow are enormous.”

Mayor Bloomberg in the school garden of PS29 in Brooklyn with Rachael Ray (Photo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-bowman-simon/the-rise-and-fall-of-scho_b_689486.html)

Despite the proliferation of school gardens, not everyone supports incorporating gardens into school curricula. In “Cultivating Failure”, published in the Atlantic in January 2010, Caitlin Flanagan argues that gardening takes away from academic time. She points out that there is no concrete evidence that gardens help students meet state standards for English and math. In addition, she criticizes school gardens for putting students from low- income families to work with manual labor. “Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it?” her article says. She adds that school gardens are using the school as a forum in which to advance a social agenda, which she believes is inappropriate. Barrett admits that there are challenges of race, class, and culture in using gardens in schools. “There might be some Latino immigrants who don’t want to work in gardens because they don’t want the stigma of being associated with migrant labor,” he says. But Andrew also notes that Flanagan is making an assumption that all immigrants are from rural areas when, especially in New York City, many immigrants are from cities and have never worked in agriculture before.

The overall response to the school garden movement has been tremendously positive. Thousands of teachers, principles, politicians, and business people support school gardens and make efforts to continue to grow and improve the garden curriculum in schools. Their support allows children all over the world to connect with the environment, their food, and the land.

5 thoughts on “Learning to Grow

  1. Marilyn

    In school programs it’s of course important to remain sensitive to cultural and racial stereotypes, But, it’s not clear to me that these shared gardening and cooking experiences, even if they happen to include learning practical skills, will be negative. Back in the day, all of us in what was then called “junior high” (well, except the boys, even though they wanted to) learned cooking and sewing, and it was both useful and something of an equalizing force among kids of different backgrounds and academic levels.

  2. Francis Ganong

    Maybe it’s time to consider doing a study of the effects of school gardens. In the absence of data, of course skeptics can point out potential drawbacks. But if there were some empirical data, maybe that would help.

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