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Gardens: Where Students Get Hooked on Outdoor Learning

Gardens

For environmental educators who teach diverse groups of students, it may be difficult to predict how comfortable students of different backgrounds will be when foisted into an outdoor learning environment. Students who grew up going camping with their families bring entirely different perspectives to the learning experience than students who have never spent significant time exploring or learning in the outdoors. With students of all backgrounds, the challenge of nurturing a level of security, curiosity, and ultimately, love, for the natural world requires finding ways to make these spaces emotionally accessible and intriguing. In my experience, if there is one outdoor learning setting that consistently fosters emotional connection and excitement in diverse groups of students, it is an edible garden.

Annie ArticleWe all have emotional connections to food. Foods hearken memories of specific places, connect us with our cultural heritage, and inform our relationships with loved ones and caretakers. For many of us, food carries complex personal, social, or historical baggage. Whoever we are, for better or for worse, food directly impacts our daily experience of the world. Food is so pervasive that many of us never take the time to consider what it means to us or says about who we are. Bringing students to a garden creates a context to explore these topics and more.

One of my favorite garden lessons involves harvesting herbs together as a group and using them to make tea or bread. IslandWood’s garden educator, Jen Prodzinski, begins these lessons by asking students to go around and share a food that they have made themselves, and who taught them how to make it. It is a brilliant question—simple enough to answer, but with rich emotional weight. Students share about making tortillas in Mexico with their grandmothers, harvesting vegetables in their home gardens with their parents, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with their older siblings, and on and on. Suddenly, everyone has an emotional entry into the lesson at hand.

Through considering their existing relationships to food, students begin to see that this outdoor learning space is a place to which they already have a connection—perhaps even a place where they can find comfort and belonging. Further, when students take on the task of making food together in the garden, they strengthen their relationships with the land and one another, fostering or enhancing their senses of place and community.

Beyond cultivating these emotional connections, a garden provides a rich opportunity for intellectual engagement, in that it can take the familiar and transform it into something strange and new. In mainstream American culture, many people do not see the processes that go in to producing the food they eat every day. Using the garden to help students trace familiar foods back to the soil and sun creates abundant moments of surprise and delight.

Using a garden as a jumping off point in this way, environmental educators can establish a relationship of trust, emotional connection, and mutual sharing with students, a powerful foundation for later lessons that might push them further from their comfort zones. By beginning in a space where all students can find personal meaning, we can help students understand that, whoever they are and whatever their experience, nature is a place for them. 

For environmental educators who teach diverse groups of students, it may be difficult to predict how comfortable students of different backgrounds will be when foisted into an outdoor learning environment. Students who grew up going camping with their families bring entirely different perspectives to the learning experience than students who have never spent significant time exploring or learning in the outdoors. With students of all backgrounds, the challenge of nurturing a level of security, curiosity, and ultimately, love, for the natural world requires finding ways to make these spaces emotionally accessible and intriguing. In my experience, if there is one outdoor learning setting that consistently fosters emotional connection and excitement in diverse groups of students, it is an edible garden.

Annie ArticleWe all have emotional connections to food. Foods hearken memories of specific places, connect us with our cultural heritage, and inform our relationships with loved ones and caretakers. For many of us, food carries complex personal, social, or historical baggage. Whoever we are, for better or for worse, food directly impacts our daily experience of the world. Food is so pervasive that many of us never take the time to consider what it means to us or says about who we are. Bringing students to a garden creates a context to explore these topics and more.

One of my favorite garden lessons involves harvesting herbs together as a group and using them to make tea or bread. IslandWood’s garden educator, Jen Prodzinski, begins these lessons by asking students to go around and share a food that they have made themselves, and who taught them how to make it. It is a brilliant question—simple enough to answer, but with rich emotional weight. Students share about making tortillas in Mexico with their grandmothers, harvesting vegetables in their home gardens with their parents, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with their older siblings, and on and on. Suddenly, everyone has an emotional entry into the lesson at hand.

Through considering their existing relationships to food, students begin to see that this outdoor learning space is a place to which they already have a connection—perhaps even a place where they can find comfort and belonging. Further, when students take on the task of making food together in the garden, they strengthen their relationships with the land and one another, fostering or enhancing their senses of place and community.

Beyond cultivating these emotional connections, a garden provides a rich opportunity for intellectual engagement, in that it can take the familiar and transform it into something strange and new. In mainstream American culture, many people do not see the processes that go in to producing the food they eat every day. Using the garden to help students trace familiar foods back to the soil and sun creates abundant moments of surprise and delight.

Using a garden as a jumping off point in this way, environmental educators can establish a relationship of trust, emotional connection, and mutual sharing with students, a powerful foundation for later lessons that might push them further from their comfort zones. By beginning in a space where all students can find personal meaning, we can help students understand that, whoever they are and whatever their experience, nature is a place for them. 

About the Author
Annie Reading

Annie Reading is an environmental educator originally from Salisbury, Maryland. She studied English and Africana Studies at Haverford College, before attending IslandWood’s graduate program in Education for Environment and Community through the University of Washington. Between college and grad school, she worked in refugee resettlement, consulting for nonprofit organizations, and raft guiding in Alaska.