Learning Gardens Have Been Taking Root


Joanne's thoughts on incredibly inspiring & edible pedagogy that is on the move...

For several years now there has been a movement afoot (or under foot) in elementary, middle, and high schools: learning gardens. Since 2011, the national nonprofit organization Big Green (formerly The Kitchen Community) has been building and maintaining school gardens while supporting curriculum development across six states. Their first garden grew at Schmitt Elementary in Denver, CO and their 400+ gardens now reach 240,000+ students each day. Before that in 2002, Portland State University (OR) launched The Learning Gardens initiative in their Graduate School of Education/Leadership for Sustainability Education, which has led to the cultivation and study of school gardens across the Portland area, including at Atkinson Elementary School. And before that in 1995, chef Alice Waters created an “edible schoolyard” in partnership with a public middle school principal in Berkeley, CA. With a mission to “build and share a national edible curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school,” the Edible Schoolyard Project emphasizes connections between formal pedagogy, gardening, nutrition, and community engagement.

While these projects have gained varying degrees of visibility over the years, it is likely that an organic garden showing up on the White House lawn in 2009 helped bring broader media attention to gardens grown with and for young people. In addition to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s annual planting of the White House garden, she went on American garden tours, bringing national attention to a multitude of school and community gardens, where gardeners young and old excitedly and proudly worked on a variety of garden projects.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a garden planting with students at Burke County Middle School in Waynesboro, Ga., April 7, 2016. (   Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon   )

Former First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a garden planting with students at Burke County Middle School in Waynesboro, Ga., April 7, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

The projects named above, and Michelle Obama’s work, are only a few of the dozens and dozens of organizations, schools, and community groups doing remarkable work across the United States. While schools provide amazing sites and opportunities to build cross-disciplinary curriculum, activate student and teacher learning, and inspire healthy habits for a lifetime, there are, of course, thousands of other locations ripe for manifesting “learning gardens.” For example, teams of creative, resourceful and hard-working people are reclaiming abandoned lots and digging up viable plots across cities such as Detroit, New York, Atlanta, San Diego, and Chicago. As these teams construct raised beds, implement vertical growing techniques, plant fruit and nut trees, and design habitat for critical pollinators, they strengthen the neighborhoods of all living organisms. For the human inhabitants, the projects and organizations deliver healthy super-local food, offer job training, and build hope within communities which, in many cases, have been working hard to overcome years of economic, racial, class, and gender discrimination.

The Cannon Ball Elementary School Garden on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota in 2015.    Photograph taken by the US Dept of Agriculture   .

The Cannon Ball Elementary School Garden on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota in 2015. Photograph taken by the US Dept of Agriculture.

So how does learning happen in these gardens? Well, fortunately while these gardens have been producing fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowers, those creating and studying the gardens have been publishing essays, articles, books, and multimedia resources to share their ideas, challenges, observations, and best practices related to curriculum development and student and teacher engagement. Given the inherently collaborative nature of gardening and farming, it is encouraging that so many project organizers, teachers, and gardeners recognize the need to circulate their work to others within and beyond their communities in order to inspire, problem-solve, and offer resources to expand and deepen the movement.

In their 2012 book, Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life, Dilafruz R. Williams & Jonathan D. Brown focus on the importance of living soil -- as both physical material and imaginative metaphor -- to discuss their seven crucial principles of pedagogy: Cultivating a sense of place, Fostering curiosity and wonder, Discovering rhythm and scale, Valuing biocultural diversity, Embracing practical experience, Nurturing interconnectedness, and Awakening the senses. In profiling specific projects, the book places students’ observations about their work in and out of the garden alongside the reflections of teachers and principals. Student poems and drawings help to give voice and life to the critical and creative learning underway. Interaction with the gardens (through planting, tending, harvesting, composting, etc.) leads to deep engagement with curricular aims across literacy, science, and math, and it helps to spur interconnected thinking, environmental awareness, and creative collaboration.

School Garden 1.jpg

While Williams’s and Brown’s book speaks to an audience of parents, teachers, school administrators, and scholars interested in, say, pedagogy, child development and the environmental sciences, Carolyn Nuttall and Janet Millington’s 2008 book Outdoor Classrooms: a handbook for school gardens functions more as a how-to, step-by-step guide for schools looking for ideas on how to implement specific outdoor learning projects focused in and around gardens. With the authors’ background in permaculture design, it is not surprising to see their illustrations of rainwater harvesting, animal shelter designs, and ideas for how to find patterns in nature. Their chapters focused on Curricular Connections provide useful questions, ideas, and lesson plans that help to animate learning across the disciplines.


All of this work -- the on-the-ground growing of gardens, the in-the-classroom exploration & analysis of garden-related subjects, and the publication and circulation of learning garden projects and resources -- is exciting and incredibly important in a country whose public education has been shaped for nearly two decades with ubiquitous testing protocols, which lead to severe levels of stress and anxiety for students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

Additionally, with many school districts needing to cut funding and resources for arts education, the multi-faceted experiential learning facilitated through a school garden provides opportunities to (re)introduce the performing and visual arts as vital ways to process, express, and enhance the knowledge produced by students. In particular, I’m thinking here of celebratory Harvest Festivals that could include storytelling, puppetry, musical performances and dancing, and a gallery of paintings and photographs inspired by life in the garden in addition to practical skill-sharing about food preservation and cooking. (For ideas & images, check out City Schoolyard Project, Mill City Grow and NVA Harvest)

Cabbage Garden.jpg

In order to foreground connections between plant life and student life, teachers and gardeners have done a great job of creating themed gardens, such as the “Pizza Garden” (with tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, spinach etc.), which provides ingredients for the students to then create their own vegetable pizzas. The garden- or farm-to-cafeteria curricula is growing, helping students to see, feel, and taste the connections between the land, the food, and their growing bodies.

Photograph taken by    Barry Pousman    in The Children’s Magical Garden, New York City in 2010

Photograph taken by Barry Pousman in The Children’s Magical Garden, New York City in 2010

Extending this idea of connection between land-plant-human body further, I would love to see every school garden include a small patch of medicinal herbs that have long histories of safe use for children and families. How great would it be for all kids to learn about the calming benefits of chamomile and lavender, the digestive aid of mint and ginger, and the heart-opening properties of rose? Helping students to experiment with herbal medicine by making hot or cold infusions as soothing teas or turning dried herbs into sweet glycerites would, hopefully, result in a more knowledgeable and empowered youth, who can see and feel how their bodies connect to the world around them and create their own remedies for certain conditions.

Lavender (Lavandula sp) and Rose (Rosa sp) growing side-by-side, collaborating in an uplifting olfactory experience

Lavender (Lavandula sp) and Rose (Rosa sp) growing side-by-side, collaborating in an uplifting olfactory experience

Abundant calendula (Calendula officinalis) with many healing properties

Abundant calendula (Calendula officinalis) with many healing properties

Why not extend this healing further by teaching kids about topical remedies made from plants that help with first-aid situations: say, stemming bleeding with yarrow, calming a rash with calendula, or soothing a bee sting with plantain (which is likely found across hundreds of schoolyards anyway). And what if students learned the benefits of aromatherapy to help calm and focus their minds and hearts?

In an age of increased social, cognitive, and emotional “disorders,” might a renewed connection to the Earth and its beneficial microbes, intentional exposure to birdsong, breeze, and sunshine, and the stimulating sensations of touching, smelling, and tasting the fruits of their gardening efforts help children, teens, and adults to find calm and an embodied sense of being part of something larger? I certainly hope so. And couldn't this increased rise in collaborative outdoor work, experiential learning, and intimate knowledge of our habitats lead to discussions and projects about environmental and social justice, helping to better the lives of ALL organisms who inhabit the Earth? Learning Gardens provide not only  fresh food for our children and exciting pedagogical opportunities for our teachers, but they also enable entire communities to learn and share some vital skills and resources necessary for generating abundance and resilience.

Related Posts: Written by Joanne: Abundance Thinking & Permaculture Design; Written by Will: Full STEAM Ahead and “Pedagogy”: What’s in a Word?