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The Garden as Substrate for Learning

Gardens

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. 

Poetry 
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. 

Art 
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/

Nourish:http://www.nourishlife.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

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. 

Poetry 
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. 

Art 
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/

Nourish:http://www.nourishlife.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

About the Author
Kassia Rudd
Author: Kassia Rudd

Kassia Rudd is an M. Ed. candidate at the University of Washington. Her studies are centered on sustainable urban gardening and food access. She received her BA from Smith College in Environmental Geoscience (2011), and went on to conduct research for the Environmental Protection Agency and Alfred-Wegener Institute. She is now pursing a career in garden education, working to support schools and independent gardens/farms in aligning small-scale sustainable agriculture with state standards. Her purpose is to increase access to healthy produce through urban gardens, empowering people to take charge of personal and local environmental health by growing their own food.