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Written by Mike McMahon, Founder of Urban Farming Education

The Urban Disconnect and Finding Our Path Through School Gardens

Gardening provides a low-tech solution to many of the issues that schools face today, particularly in urban or low-income areas where problems of poverty, lack of access to healthy food, poor educational foundations and difficult learning environments converge. These challenges have only grown starker in the 21st century as children have become more sedentary, leading to a spike in childhood obesity, while food deserts have led to poor nutritional outcomes for many children. Urban Farming Education, LLC aims to harness the power of school gardens by helping to create a learning program and mentor teachers in the process of building and maintaining a garden, as well as using it as an educational tool. We offer a guide and hands-on experience through the first few seasons. But before you begin, what are some of the benefits of school gardens?

Encouraging Healthy Eating

Between 2007 and 2010, 93 percent of children did not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary recommendations for vegetable intake, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On a surface level, gardening at school can help solve this issue by providing children with access to fresh produce that they may not otherwise get at home — while building up a lifelong appreciation for healthy eating that they will take with them even after leaving the campus. By interacting with fresh produce on a consistent basis, children can become more familiar with fruits and vegetables they may not initially like, while repeated exposure helps kids build emotional connections to food that they have grown and harvested themselves. Experiential learning provides a crucial tool for teaching kids about healthy eating. School gardens offer real-life lessons in how to grow, harvest, and prepare fruits and vegetables; as a result, they can be key in shifting students’ nutritional practices.

Bringing Gardening into the Classroom

Gardening affords a great opportunity for active learning, which is the best way to engage students, cultivate positive attitudes, and promote deep learning. The activities and resources we at Urban Farming Education suggest also help students develop problem-solving, inquiry, and engineering abilities using the following three related pedagogical models.

  • Problem Based Learning
  • The 5-E Inquiry Model
  • The Engineering Design Process

Educators who utilize gardens in their lessons can teach kids who often don’t know where their food comes from more about the growth cycle and what a plant needs to survive. Gardens also provide an opportunity to teach basic math skills, such as by counting the number of plants in the garden, comparing this to the number of seeds planted, and using addition or subtraction in the process. Generally speaking, interacting with gardens can help children do better in school. Multiple studies have looked at how school gardens affect classroom achievements, finding that students whose schools had garden programs ended up having higher scores on standardized tests for math, reading, and science. They were also more likely to actually enjoy the subjects they studied, pay more attention in class and connect their learning to real life. This effect can be particularly strong for kids who struggle academically, and may see gardening as a respite from other problems going on in their lives. Teachers who have integrated gardening into their lessons have found that academically challenged students are less disruptive in class and appear to be more confident and motivated.

In order to successfully integrate school gardens into their lessons, teachers should connect what kids learn in the garden to the “real world” whenever possible and think of ways to use the garden to teach a diversity of subjects, from science to math to history.

Finally, make sure to adapt your approach to your specific community, where everything from the climate to the cultural background of the students can and should impact what foods are grown and cooked. The Urban Farming Education guide is written for the Southwestern part of the United States. We are fortunate to have two complete growing seasons that complement the school year, and we seek to capitalize on this by describing two learning-growing seasons per year.

Stone, Curtis. The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land. New Society Publishers, 2016.

“5 Things You Need to Know About Financing Your Farm.” Urban Ag News, April 10, 2020. https://urbanagnews.com/blog/exclusives/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-financing-your-farm/

Best Practices for Schools

If at this point you’re convinced that a garden would be a beneficial addition to your school, the next step is to think about how to best implement it. Start by gathering a group of people you think would be interested in helping — particularly teachers, community members, and parents — and assigning everyone a role. Then, think about where you would want the garden to be located, and get administrative approval to build it on school property if you need to. There are a few aspects you should keep in mind when considering a location: gardens need lots of light (at least six and ideally eight hours of natural sunlight per day), a gathering area for kids to sit on, pathways for easy access, and a tool shed for storing equipment. You may also need to obtain funding from your school administration, organize a fundraising drive, or apply for grants.

Make a list of plants you want to grow and decide whether you want to start with seeds or seedlings, then draw up a list of everything you’ll need to start planting. Once you're ready to involve the children in the process, make sure to provide them with some background information — such as lessons on the different varieties of plants, and how they grow — and then write up a calendar of when you want to plant each item and a rotation schedule for the kids to take turns tending to the garden. One fun thing you can do together is draw a map of the garden, both for your own reference and to get the children to explore in a structured way.

Chen, Grace. “Public School Gardens: Good for Learning or a Waste of Time?” Public School Review, Aug. 6, 2018. www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/public-school-gardens-good-for-learning-or-a-waste-of-time

Cowan, Shannon. “School Gardens: Can They Make Our Children Smarter?” Eartheasy Guides & Articles, Sept. 19, 2018. learn.eartheasy.com/articles/school-gardens-can-they-make-our-children-smarter/

Litchman, Lori. “Growing a School Garden.” Adapted from How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete guide for Parents and Teachers (Timber Press, 2010). www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/growing-school-garden/

Shafer, Leah. “Let It Grow.” Usable Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education, July 31,
2018. www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/07/let-it-grow