As K-12 schools prepare for full-time in-person classes in the fall, parents and educators no doubt will push to make up for time lost during the pandemic. Some legacy instructional systems will be scuttled, while some new methods and approaches will emerge—or be re-discovered—to accelerate learning.
One learning approach that schools should consider adopting in the fall is the experiential and immersive variety epitomized by school gardens.
Amateur gardening has exploded during the pandemic, providing the opportunity for many families, including my own, to take up backyard, apartment, or balcony gardening. Just how extensive gardening has become is underscored by sales of seeds. Burpee Seed Co. sold more seeds in March 2020 than at any time in the company’s 144-year history.
Some schools have been incorporating school gardening curricula for years. But for those schools considering new approaches in the fall, educators ought to take a good, long look because of the newfound interest in gardens spurred by the pandemic and because of the far-reaching educational benefits.
A 2013 scholarly analysis examined research conducted between 1990 and 2010 on the impact of school gardens on academic performance. It found “overwhelmingly that garden-based learning had a positive impact on students’ grades, knowledge, attitudes and behavior.”
Similarly, a University of Georgia study on the value of school gardening found that “beyond increasing knowledge of the directly related science topics of gardening, plant ecology and nutrition, garden-based learning actually addresses all eight of the National Science Education Standards.”
That breadth of positive impact has been the experience of numerous educators, including Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. Urtubey, who has no formal training on gardening, credits it with helping to transform her school, the local community, and her students.
One of Urtubey’s motivations for starting a community garden at Crestwood Elementary school in Nevada was to help kids stay healthy, she told me.
“The first step was boosting nutrition,” she said. “I wanted my students to better understand the origins of real food—how to grow it, cultivate, and share it.”
Motivation soared. Conversations and communication increased. The garden started to become a solution to roadblocks that often hinder deeper learning. “We were building a system that provided benefits beyond the food itself. We advanced from boosting nutrition to fostering nourishment. The school garden was creating real change in our community,” she said.
Increased student achievement, genuine family engagement, improved student and community health, and increased teacher satisfaction and retention. All thanks to a school garden and robust curricula associated with it.
Similar to what teachers experience with school gardens, my family’s goal is less about the amount of food we produce—although that would be a nice bonus—and more about what we’re experiencing in the process. Our modest garden beds are a kind of home laboratory. And, frankly, covering our hands in dirt has been a welcome departure from covering them in hand sanitizer.
According to Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, a company that helps individuals, families and businesses develop gardens, my family has joined the legions of new “pandemic gardeners”—heavy on enthusiasm, but light on expertise.
Her staff commands degrees and specialization in environmental science, urban farming, agro-policy, sustainability, and design. They approach gardening with a high degree of science and planning. Michelin-rated restaurants have hired them to build high-producing on-site gardens to source their kitchens with a steady supply of fresh herbs and vegetables. The volume and size of the garlic, kale, and beets I witnessed them harvest for a local restaurant was enough to make Gordon Ramsay blush.
But while they are a business, they also recognize the wonderful teaching opportunity that gardens present, for K-12 and adult learners alike. They have taken their expertise and their passion for sustainable practices and healthy food and shared it with schools and organizations spanning multiple states.
Several partners include Washington, D.C., schools such as the Academy of Hope, a public charter school focusing on continued adult education. The company also installed a rooftop garden for City Kids Cooperative, an education program for homeschooled children. It has worked extensively on garden development with Martha’s Table, an early childhood education program, where Sheperd and team provide coaching and instruction on healthy nutrition and sustainable living practices to local residents and neighbors.
“Building and maintaining a vegetable garden is a perfect team project and learning experience that brings people together,” she said. “When it produces healthy produce in the process, all the better.”
School gardens present the opportunity for educators to leverage widespread interest in gardening. It will get kids outside more, get them socializing more and in teams—and perhaps most important, stimulate their minds and fill a learning void so many have experienced these last 15 months.