Keys to Starting a School Garden - U of I Extension

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Keys to Starting a School Garden

This article was originally published on March 2, 2017 and expired on June 2, 2018. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – School gardens have grown more popular throughout the United States. Studies have shown multiple benefits of youth learning from the school gardens. Children learn about nutrition, science, math, find inspiration in art and literature and overall get a sense of accomplishment and responsibility, says University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator, Kelly Allsup. "I do not have to find research to say that teachers love getting students actively involved and the opportunity to experience their learning," says Allsup.

Additionally, research from the University of Illinois shows the power of green reaches beyond academics and to our emotional core. William Sullivan, a professor in landscape architecture, asks simple questions in his research like, "If you have a tree outside your front door, will you be a happier person? More successful? Smarter? Less stressed?" His research aims to reveal the effects of everyday contact with green spaces, from a collection of trees, patches of grass to a full-blown garden of annuals and perennials. Sullivan's research reveals that even the smallest of green spaces daily have profound, positive impacts on individuals and communities. Sullivan and his team of students and collaborators assess people's hormones, heart rates, brain waves, psychological states and ability to pay attention before and after they interact with green space. Sullivan's latest research explores further previous research findings that have confirmed positive links between the plant life in school landscapes to academic performance. Results from his most recent work demonstrated that classrooms with green views caused significantly better performance on tests. The better overall performance showed in areas such as a student's attention and recovery from stressful experiences increased as taking tests.

Andrea Faber Taylor, a professor in the department of crop science, found that 20 minutes in a park was sufficient to elevate attention performance when comparing the same amount of time in other settings. These findings indicate that environments can enhance attention not only in the general population but also in ADHD symptoms. "Doses of nature" might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible tool when managing ADHD.

Others studies indicate that nature provides a background and objectives for play and learning. Older children use problem-solving abilities while exploring in natures, and often in groups. Younger children tend to use outdoor settings including plants, stones, and sticks as props for imaginative play. They may use the weeping willow as their private clubhouse or a fallen branch as a wizard wand.

According to the American Psychological Association, a third of our children experienced physical symptoms due to stress such as headaches, stomachaches and sleep disorders. Could experiencing more gardens and nature help relieve our children's stress?With this knowledge, schools may find value in trees, landscapes, and gardens beyond improving academic lessons. 

The latest research keeps revealing that nature and green improves a student's overall academic experience. When a child is disruptive in class, a walk in the garden may be much more effective than sending them to the principal's office. When a child is ready to take a test, an activity in the garden may be more helpful than last minute cramming to help ease their mind. This brings us to the fact that schools and teachers cannot maintain these gardens and green spaces alone. Help from parents, community organizations, churches, volunteer groups and school gardening grants make these opportunities possible. Today, only one in four schools have a school garden for mostly this reason alone.

20 Tips to Starting a School Garden

1. Start small

2. Get a volunteer group & parents committed to the project (watering, weeding, labeling, planting, and harvesting)

3. Start a pollinator garden

4. Grow cool-season vegetables that will complete their life cycle while youth are in schoo

l5. Connect outdoor activities to what is being taught by the teachers in the classroom

6. Start an after school garden club

7. Pick a theme (book or color)

8. Get the principal and science teacher on board with exciting ideas & updates

9. Research for grant money

10. Plant a tree for Arbor Day

11. Grow herbs in a window box

12. Plant bulbs in the fall

13. Start seed in the classroom for home gardens or pots

14. Put some easy to grow houseplants in the classrooms (ZZ plant, dracaena, and pathos)

15. Raise your own painted lady butterflies

16. Make a garden scavenger hunt

17. Dedicate a bulletin board to gardening education

18. Ask the librarian to order more garden and nature books

19. Visit a local farm

20. Have the kids research the plants

University of Illinois Extension offers a few online resources

School Garden Toolkit

Themes for School Gardens

Source: Kelly Allsup, Extension Educator, Horticulture,

Pull date: June 2, 2018