Adapted from “Gardens for Learning: Creating and Sustaining Your School Garden” California School Garden Network www.csgn.org.
by Mary Beth Bennett, Extension Agent and Associate Professor, WVU Berkeley County Office
Although science is the most natural fit, with the school garden playing the role of science laboratory, the classroom garden can also act as a springboard for a wide range of lessons in mathematics, history-social science, English-language arts, visual and performing arts, and health.
Begin by looking at the education standards and your own curriculum goals and making a list or map of areas you intend to cover. Make a second list of garden tasks, projects, and goals, and match them with the student outcomes detailed in the standards. Next, select or develop specific activities that can help students achieve the standards. The lists that follow represent just a sampling of garden-focused subject area activities to get you started. Free garden curriculum resources for teachers are plentiful.
The garden provides ample opportunity for making science inviting and relevant to students’ lives by inspiring active exploration and problem solving. The garden encourages inquiry as students use their senses, reasoning, and communication skills to find answers to questions. These experiences can help improve students’ attitude toward science. Key science concepts
that can be explored in the garden include organisms, cycles, basic requirements for life, plant anatomy, adaptations, food webs, decomposition, interdependence, ecological principles, pollination, and diversity of life. Students practice and hone scientific process skills by observing, classifying, inferring, measuring, predicting, organizing and interpreting data, forming hypotheses, and identifying variables.
• What are the differences between living and nonliving things? How are humans like plants? How are they different? Distinguish and describe differences and similarities.
• How does a plant grow? Observe the life cycles of plants using fast-growing plants in your classroom.
• What do plants need to grow? Do all plants need the same things? Study the various conditions that different plants need to grow. Compare the things people need to the things plants need. Create experiments investigating what happens when plants are exposed to different amounts of light, water, air, space, and nutrients.
• Investigate the functions of different plant structures (cotyledons, roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds).
• How do plants reproduce? How do seeds work? Dissect flowers and seeds. What factors influence germination of seeds? Create experiments to investigate how light, heat, and moisture affect germination.
• Explain to students that some characteristics are inherited and others are caused by the environment. Locate examples of both in your garden.
• How do plants use energy from the sun to make food? Discuss photosynthesis. Do plants need light to photosynthesize?
• Discuss how plants adapt for survival. Research adaptations of seeds for dispersal and adaptations of flowers for attracting pollinators. Observe pollinators in the garden.
• Investigate the impact of environmental changes on plants.
• Study wildlife and insects along with their habitats.
• Investigate food chains and webs. Demonstrate how plants are the primary source of energy for all food chains.
• Create a garden weather station. Record daily measurements and compare conditions with plant growth.
• How are some soils different from others? Compare and contrast the properties of different types of soils (density, air spaces, presence of living organisms, composition, texture, smell, appearance).
• Simulate soil erosion in your classroom garden. Observe the difference in soil loss when water is splashed on a tilted, planted pot, and on a tilted, unplanted (but soil-filled) pot.
• What is pH? How does it affect plants? Use litmus paper or a test kit to test the pH of different soils. Investigate how plants respond to soils with different pH levels.
• Simulate the water cycle in the indoor garden by covering it with a “dome” of clear plastic. Study and observe the transpiration, evaporation, and condensation of water.
• What are the properties of different types of light? Cover pots with cellophane of different colors to screen out all but one wavelength of light from plants. Observe plant growth.
• How does energy change to matter during photosynthesis?
The garden provides a wealth of opportunities to practice basic mathematical activities such as calculations, comparisons, measurements, and varied representations of data (charts, graphs, etc.). Math becomes practical and relevant when students implement concepts they have learned in the classroom in a real life garden setting. Designing and planting a garden takes mathematical problem solving and practice. The hands-on applications presented by gardening activities
can help to motivate students often confused by abstract textbook questions and examples. Here are a few math activity ideas:
• Measure the growth rates of plants and display results on different types of graphs. Make predictions regarding future growth. Use standard and nonstandard units of measurement.
• Host a bean race. Plant a number of beans at the base of a trellis and track their growth on a chart. Determine the rate of growth and award the fastest plant a blue ribbon.
• Using information from seed catalogs, predict dates of germination and maturity.
• Plan backward from a desired harvest date to determine when each crop should be planted.
• Measure your garden parameters and calculate the area. Use graph paper to make a map to scale of your garden.
• Calculate amounts of fertilizer to use per quart and per liter of water.
• Chart temperatures of the air and soil in your garden in Fahrenheit and centigrade.
• Determine the weight and volume of soil mix when wet and dry. Determine the volume of soil in a rectangular window box.
• Investigate vegetable prices in a supermarket. Track the amount of produce harvested in your garden and use the market prices to determine the value of your harvest.
• Count the number of seeds planted and the number of seeds that sprout and calculate the germination rate.
• Measure the height of a group of plants and determine the mean, median, and mode.
• Calculate serving sizes of different fruits and vegetables using common cooking supplies.
• Make a recipe that uses fruits and vegetables from the garden and requires various measuring techniques.
Plants are an important part of world history. They have influenced human civilizations and economies since the beginning, and as the base of all food chains and supplier of oxygen for our air, they will always be essential to our survival.
Gardening activities can be used to teach students about specific historical events and cultures, and also to introduce current events like the impact of biotechnology. Some gardening activity ideas:
• Research and report on cultural or ethnic differences in food consumption and gardening practices.
• Research agricultural history and create a timeline of important events.
• Visit some local farms and interview farmers about choice of crops, growing practices, marketing, and farm history.
• Study the contribution of Native American foods and other cultures’ foods to our history and diet. Grow samples in the school garden.
• Research the histories of classroom garden plants. Discover where they originated, the impact they’ve had on our diets, and how today’s varieties differ from the original plants. Locate their origin on a map and then trace their movement around the world.
• Use the Thanksgiving holiday to explore meals throughout history and the different crops grown and harvested at that time of the year.
• Complete a site analysis of the school garden and create a garden map noting important features, including a north arrow.
• Trace the path of a fruit or vegetable from the field to the table.
• Use the classroom garden to complement a study of the influence of climate on food production.
• As a class, develop garden rules and then vote on them.
Reading and writing are two very important classroom basics, and mastery of these skills provides students with the power to succeed. Relating language arts exercises to the garden can add an element of fun, too.
• Keep daily garden journals documenting observations, weather conditions, and classroom activities.
• Research the growing habits of the school garden plants using the Internet and reference material. Create a planting schedule based on the information.
• Write letters to local merchants explaining the school gardening project and asking for donations.
• Write thank you notes to volunteers and garden sponsors.
• Write, illustrate, and publish a collection of garden stories and poems.
• Brainstorm different adjectives to describe each plant in your garden.
• Study new vocabulary that relates to plants and gardens.
• Publish a class newsletter with student articles about the garden and distribute it to other classrooms and parents.
• Write step-by-step instructions for common garden activities.
• Follow written instructions to perform a garden task like planting seeds.
• Read books and stories about plants and gardens.
• Write a research paper on a favorite plant, including source citation.
• Prepare and deliver a presentation about the garden for other students, teachers, and parents.
• Learn about the origins of scientific plant names.
• Read a garden magazine article highlighting a plant and distinguish between the facts and opinions presented by the writer.
• Research the nutritional value of your favorite garden vegetable and then write a script for a 60-second advertisement designed to get more people to grow and eat it.
Visual and Performing Arts
Nature is the inspiration for many works of art, dance, music, and drama. Your school garden is a small piece of nature that can inspire budding artists.
• Create paintings and drawings of garden plants.
• Paint a class garden mural to hang in the hallway for parents’ night.
• Make a seed mosaic.
• Create a color wheel collage using pictures from old seed catalogs.
• Make musical instruments from gourds and learn how to play them.
• Make prints using paint and stamps made from various plant parts.
• Create and perform a garden-inspired dance expressing the growth of a seed or the opening of a flower bud.
• Pantomime various gardening tasks (transplanting, fertilizing, sowing seeds, pollinating).
• Learn a collection of songs that relate to food, gardens, and the environment.
• Draw your dream garden.
• Listen to the music of composers inspired by nature.
• Build clay or tissue paper models of flowers.
• Use leaves to make crayon rubbings or fossils in clay.
• Using a movie camera with single-frame capability, make a time-lapse film of a plant growing.
• Create a skit about food safety.
• Paint a classroom mural using samples of different soils as the medium.
Health and Nutrition
Research continues to document the significant health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, and yet most children do not eat the recommended daily amount. Growing fruits and vegetables in the school garden improves students’ attitudes toward these healthy foods and motivates reluctant eaters to try them. You can use the garden as a hands-on tool to teach nutrition lessons, including the importance of fruits and vegetables and proper food preparation techniques.
Specific activity ideas:
• Compare the importance of nutrients in the health of humans and of plants.
• Study the nutritional value of the various crops in your garden.
• Identify the parts of the plant represented by common fruits and vegetables.
• Discuss the difference in nutritional value of various plant parts.
• Study adaptations of plant parts that make them good food sources.
• Sprout various seeds for eating.
• Conduct a blindfolded taste test using classroom-grown vegetables and supermarket vegetables.
• Experiment with food preservation techniques, such as drying, freezing, and canning.
• Grow a salad garden and give students a chance to sample the harvest with a salad party.
• Invite a grocery store employee to talk to the class about where their products come from.
• Visit a local farm.
• Create brochures with information on daily food intake recommendations.
• Plan a day’s menu that includes all components of a balanced diet.
• Keep food journals that highlight how many fruits and vegetables are eaten and
describe any new produce tried.
• Invite chefs from the community to do cooking demonstrations for students and parents. Coordinate a cooking lesson in your school’s kitchen using the produce your class has grown.
• Ask cafeteria managers to share safe food handling information and provide tours of school kitchens.
• Invite a registered dietitian to visit classrooms and discuss healthy food choices and healthy preparation methods in connection with MyPyramid.gov.
• Present a skit or puppet show about food safety.
• Use MyPyramid.gov to help you choose a healthy diet. Come up with tasty recipes that use lots of fruits and vegetables and little fat or sugar.
• Create a classroom or school recipe book that features produce grown in school gardens.
• Compare the nutritional content of different colors of a specific variety of vegetables, e.g., salad greens. Graph the Vitamin A content in the lighter colored greens and in darker greens. Contrast this with other vegetables.
• Research and compare fruits and vegetables with various origins. Identify cultural dishes and their preparation methods. Host an “international day” and provide healthful samplings of fruits and vegetables from those cultures.
• Incorporate literature using the book Stone Soup and involve students in making their own stone soup. Have students discuss the benefits of the ingredients and how they fit into MyPyramid.
• Research cultural holidays and the symbolism of particular fruits and vegetables that are included during those holidays. For example, identify the symbolism of tangerines in the Chinese New Year celebration.
• Create a public service announcement or school announcement promoting fruits and vegetables. The promotion could highlight something growing in the garden, a fruit or vegetable offered in the cafeteria, or both. This will encourage students to develop skills for marketing food choices.
• Grow and use fresh herbs to flavor your dishes with natural ingredients and decrease the use of salt in recipes.
• Visit a local farmers’ market or start a school farmers’ market.
These ideas are just a sampling of the classroom gardening activities available to you. Search books, magazines, and Web sites for additional ideas. Also, as you grow with your garden, you will create many activities of your own. Be sure to pass them along to other teachers and parents.
Mary Beth Bennett has been the Agriculture and Natural Resource Extension Agent in Berkeley County, West Virginia for 19 years. She works in all areas of agriculture including the Master Gardener program. But her love is agricultural literacy, helping people understand where their food and fiber come from. She taught the first group of West Virginia teachers about Agriculture in the Classroom. Mary Beth also enjoys working with people and traveled as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Brazil and with the Agency for International Development in Africa. She grew up on a dairy farm, helping raise calve and in the family gar