By Jessica Pollitt, Americorps/Vista, WVU Extension Services
Of course learning happens in a garden. There are so many things to observe, identify, touch, and taste that experiential learning is inherent. However, in justifying using gardens as part of our school day, that’s not enough. We need to think about gardens and their capacity to address curriculum standards in new and exciting ways. In doing so, we can not only meet classroom objectives but also engage children in the process of learning and connect them to their natural world.
Getting started is easy, think about all of the ways to include a plant in a classroom lesson. A simple classroom plant provides opportunities to measure, record, observe, journal, chart, investigate, and discuss. Now think about what you could do with a garden…whether it’s a container garden, a few raised beds, or acres of land the opportunities for learning are immense. With thought and planning content standards at every level and across all content areas could be addressed through the simple act of growing a garden.
When you think about a task analysis of gardening (planning your space, how many plants will fit, how do I decide what to plant where, when should I plant) math and science education is inherent. To decide how many plants to place in a row you have to measure your space, know how much space each plant needs, and plant accordingly. In caring for that row of crops you are learning some botany (what does my plant need, how does it grow), some entomology (is this bug a friend or foe), and you start thinking about how systems function (is my plant getting what it needs, what plants make good companions). Of course you can learn math and science in a garden.
You can also use a garden to teach language arts and social studies. You can journal about the sensory experiences in your garden. You can write informative texts about garden procedures. You can tie children’s literature to garden experiences. You can study both the historical and geographical significance of various plants. The possibilities and opportunities for learning in a garden are countless. And the learning that happens there is powerful because it is multi-sensory, connected, and engaged.
So how do we move forward to make garden-based learning a viable option for children and educators? By partnering with local agriculture agents, ag service providers and knowledgeable farmers/gardeners schools can gain the technical support they may need to ensure their growing is a success. (However, even a garden blunder is an opportunity for learning) Throughout this partnership and as the garden grows teachers will discover many ways in which garden-based learning addresses the content standards specific to their grade level and subject area.
Working with “Content Standards and Objectives” (CSO’s) can be overwhelming for those outside of the field of education. Agriculture service providers know that a wealth of knowledge can be gained by working with and teaching children about plants. What is daunting is how it fits into CSO’s…is it teaching the right concept at the right time to the right grade level? By working with educators, the broad knowledge to be gained can be fined tuned to fit into what concepts should be taught at what grade levels (CSO’s), making garden-based learning an arguably worthwhile teaching tool.
As an example, let’s use growing a tomato plant and compare how two different grade levels could use this experience to meet their CSO’s. A quick online search returns 300+ children’s books related to tomatoes, from pre-K through middle school reading levels…the possible literary connections are numerous. Below are a few content standards that could be addressed. The list is by no means exhaustive – even for these grade levels, because when you start to really look at and think about garden-based learning the applications are limitless.
M.2.MD.9 generate measurement data by measuring lengths of several objects to the nearest whole unit or by making repeated measurements of the same object and show the measurements by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in whole number units.
SS.2.E.3 design a system that reflects the understanding of the exchange of goods and services.
Compare growth or fruiting of multiple plants to address the following objectives:
M.1HS8.DST.2 use statistics appropriate to the shape of the data distribution to compare center (median, mean) and spread (interquartile range, standard deviation) of two or more different data sets.
SS.6-8.L.16 conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
Jessica Pollitt is a licensed special education teacher who is passionate about food production and nutrition education in public schools. She is currently working as an Americorps/Vista with school, youth, and community gardens in Kanawha County, WV.