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Ask a student what plants need to thrive, and many can tell you light, air, water, and /or soil. Some may mention a need for nutrients and space, but only a few will describe the connections between plants and wildlife. The garden is a microcosm in which eco-system elements come together in a human managed space—through planting and observation, students can’t help but notice that radishes packed closely together don’t grow well, that some insects eat holes in tender leaves, while others flutter around each flower’s center. From there, it is not a big leap to discussion of mutualistic, symbiotic, and parasitic relationships. The garden is a backdrop against which a multitude of concepts can be taught, and yet many teachers find themselves overwhelmed by the prospect of teaching outside—either because they consider themselves unprepared to do so, or because they feel the pressure of too little time.  

There exist a plethora of resources for teaching science and nutrition in the garden. For those already confident in their own mastery of science content, and convinced of the merit of garden education, these resources are a fabulous starting point. For those nervous teaching outside, and uncomfortable in the garden, these resources may make a garden venture seem like a huge commitment. What many garden resources fail to communicate is that while the garden is not limited to science education, in fact it is suited to many disciplines. This article will outline strategies for taking a lesson that you already teach in the classroom, and modifying it to suit the outdoors. 

Ultimately, the garden is a creative space. Science is not the only subject one can teach in the garden. Any lesson requiring inspiration: art, poetry, storytelling, lends itself well to the garden. Some time may be lost in introducing students to the space and directing their excitement, but that time is more than made up in increased engagement. With the garden as the muse and paper as the canvas, students are far more likely to remain on task.   

How to Turn a Standard Lesson into a Garden Gem: 

The garden is not a distraction, it is the focus. Whether your school has a well maintained blooming and productive expanse outdoors, or you are limited to a series of pots on your windowsill, gardens provide a meaningful and tangible foundation for learning that extends far beyond NGSS. You do not need to go out of your way to create a garden lesson. Identify something you are already doing—pollinators, expository writing, perimeter calculations, nutrition, characterization, book group—and make the garden both the prompt and the setting.  

Quick Lessons for All Ages: 

The garden can spark a variety of lessons. Have students conduct a 5-10 minute sit spot, recording their observations, than provide them with one of the following prompts. 

Select a device that you are covering in class, such as metaphor, simile, enjambment, alliteration, etc., and have students write a short poem inspired by something they observed. 

Creative writing 
Have students write a story regarding something they observed while incorporating class vocabulary. 

Select a medium, and have students recreate/reimagine what they see. 

Critical Thinking 
Have students select a biotic or abiotic garden element and write a riddle. You can easily combine this with the use of poetic devices or classroom vocab. 

Expository Writing 
Have students select a garden element that intrigues them. Instruct them to research that element, and create an informative pamphlet or sign to teach the public. Many gardens lack adequate signage—this is a great way to improve the garden as a teaching tool while also supporting students in following their own interests. 

Remember, the garden is the substrate. It is the foundation upon which you can build engaging and empowering education experiences for your students. 

Lesson Resources: 

Life lab:http://www.lifelab.org/

Growing gardens:http://growing-gardens.org/


Seattle Tilth:http://www.seattletilth.org/

Sustainable Food Center:http://sustainablefoodcenter.org/

Cornell Garden Based Learning:http://gardening.cce.cornell.edu/

New York Agriculture in the Classroom:http://www.agclassroom.org/ny/index.htm

A Mighty Girl:http://www.amightygirl.com/books/general-interest/food-gardening

Many people have never heard of a Learning Garden, but that makes it no less wonderful. A Learning Garden is place where students can get outside, get dirty, and explore food systems all while engaging in critical thought about ecosystems and ecosystem functions. The Learning Garden provides the benefits of getting children outdoors while creating opportunities for students to engage with standard scientific concepts in fun and fruitful ways.

My favorite lesson to teach is about the life cycle of a seed. It is a wonderful way to interactively introduce various concepts including photosynthesis, pollinators, plant reproduction, and seed dispersal. It also aligns with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

  • 5-LS1-1: Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water
  • 5-PS3-1. Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.

This activity needs a little bit of set up, but its fruits are well worth the labor.


Have students take out their journals (which remain closed) and writing utensil, and sit in a circle.

Tell the students that we will be learning about the life of a seed. With a seed in hand, hold up it for everyone to see and ask:

  1. What is this?
  2. What do you know about it?
  3. Where do you think it came from?

This is a wonderful time to have students open their journals and write down the answers to these questions.  The students usually have amazing and amusing answers, so make sure that you create time for sharing. For instance, a student once recognized that the demonstration seed was a pumpkin seed. When I told him that we were going to plant it, he said “How are we gonna take a whole pumpkin home?” Sharing time is a wonderful space for working through your students’ alternative conceptions.

Once students have shared their answers, share a “secret”. The secret is that that little seed contains all of the components necessary for life, and that every plant in the garden starts out as a tiny seed. Then tell them that the class is going to learn about all of the seed’s secrets with the help of a story that they will create.

The Story of the Seed:

  1. In the student’s journal, have them create a story board (5-10 columns with space for writing underneath each column and room for drawing inside each column). Have a pre-made story board available to demonstrate to students how to set up their page(s).
  2. Each column of the story board should address one of these “seed needs”:
  • Water*
  • Light energy* †
  • Carbon dioxide*
  • Oxygen*
  • Pollinators †
  • Fruit †
  • Seed dispersers †
  • Decomposers ⁰

*These “seed needs” align most closely to NGSS 5-LS1-1.

These “seed needs” align most closely to NGSS 5-PS3-1.

⁰ Aligns with NGSS 5-LS2-1: Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.

Once the students have the journals organized like the model storyboard, you can begin to tell the story. This is an interactive activity that involves student voices.

  • The first panel should have a drawing of a seed. Start the story by reminding the students about the seeds “secret”: that the seed has all the components of life inside of it. Say “However, the seed needs a little help from its environment to grow.”
  • This seed is also a little bit “naked”. Ask the students what ecosystem component is first needed to get this seed started (substrate).

Debrief and Wrap-Up:

When the story is completed the students should understand that:

  1. Columns 1-5: NGS Standard 5-LS1-1.
    1. A seed needs light energy, air, and water to grow roots and become a plant.
    2. A plant engages in photosynthesis, the process by which the green parts of plants use carbon dioxide, water, and light energy to create sugar and oxygen.
    3. Though plants use substrate, they don’t build matter from substrate, they build matter from carbon found in carbon dioxide.
    4. Plants use the sugar they create for food, and we breathe the oxygen that plants create.
  2. Columns 6-10: NGS Standard 5-PS3-1.
    1. Plants grow flowers in order to reproduce (create more seeds).
    2. Pollinators eat flower products (energy transfer) and pollinate flowers.
    3. Once a flower has been pollinated, it creates fruit which is the home to the newly created seeds.
    4. Seed dispersers (energy transfer) help to spread the seeds to new homes.
    5. The plant decomposes (matter transfer), and the seed life cycle starts again.

After completing the story board and a post lesson assessment, such as the Debrief Circle or others, found on the IslandWood Wiki , have the students do a take-home planting project. This is a wonderful, long lasting way for students to put those science skills to use and see them grow!