Garden-Based Learning Scores

By Eve Pranis

"I had never gardened myself and didn't even know what a radish seed was," reports second and third grade Louisville, KY, teacher Andrea Miller.

According to new Kentucky Educational Reform act, she explains, teachers are mandated to ensure that learning experiences are relevant and help kids make connections to their own lives. "A growing project seemed like an ideal opportunity," she adds.

Once they received flower bulbs from our Kids Growing with Dutch Bulbs award, Andrea's students used catalogs and other resources to research how and where to plant them. Using information on height, bloom time, color, and so on, each cooperative group used pattern blocks to plan a planting design, then created a calendar.

As the students researched the traditional uses of bulbs and their current production in Holland, history lessons unfolded. "Throughout this project, I realized that it was fine that I didn't know all of the answers, but rather acted as a facilitator and guide," she admits. "It really helped the kids recognize that we're all lifelong learners, and it helped the parents to hear students say, 'Mrs. Miller learned X today.'"

The concept of using gardens as living laboratories was so intriguing to Andrea that when the school formed multiage teams that would spend part of each day learning together, she created the Rainbow Gardening Team. With support from a Youth Garden Grant and inspired by a classroom GrowLab, Andrea's team spends part of each day using gardening as a centerpiece for interdisciplinary learning.

Stating the Case to Parents and Others

It has taken some planning to convince the administration, other teachers, and parents that kids are learning, admits Andrea. "Many of our parents were skeptical of how kids can learn from playing in the 'dirt'," she continues.

One way she helps parents better understand her approach is to invite them to spend several hours visiting the class rather than coming in for shorter periods. And every Sunday night, Andrea writes an informal letter to parents filling them in on the theme for the week -- butterflies or pumpkins, for instance. "I describe how we'll focus on each subject area in a thematic context," she explains. "We might research vegetables for language arts, measure garden perimeters for math, and explore what is grown in other cultures for social studies."

Tests Confirm Growing Minds

The feedback Andrea has received from parents speaks volumes. One parent writes, "I can't tell you how much the gardening project has boosted my child's self-esteem and quest for knowledge." Student test scores also confirm the power of learning in a relevant context. When fourth graders who had been on the Gardening Team for two years took a standardized math/science test, they scored significantly higher than students in other classes.

"My kids had no trouble explaining the water cycle after their rich, hands-on experiences," Andrea brags. "Now the teachers who had initially teased, 'It must be nice to get paid to play in the dirt' are wanting gardening beds for their classes," she adds.

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