I recently picked up a copy of the School Garden Curriculum: An Integrated K-8 Guide for Discovering Science, Ecology, and Whole-Systems Thinking by Kaci Rae Christopher.
It was love at first sight.
Not only does this book offer a comprehensive approach to engaging all elementary/middle grade levels in meaningful garden tasks, but it also organizes the lessons seasonally so that you don’t have to flip back and forth to figure out when to use each lesson. Most impressively, this book is not a “how-to” manual for non-garden enthusiasts. Instead, it offers an opportunity to deepen existing practice so that children have the opportunity to “ritualize” chores and learn from their experiences.
Grounded in Permaculture
Although permaculture is a concept dating back to the 1970s, it remains an influential garden philosophy and technical approach. Christopher makes clear ties to permaculture practices and the promises they hold for sustaining school gardens. She primarily relies on the three “Ethical Principles” espoused by permaculture enthusiasts and uses them to frame garden expectations for behavior and engagement: Care for Self, Care for Others, and Care for the Land.
These conditions are the basis of the “social contract” students make when they commit to working respectfully in the garden. Although she never explicitly names all of the principles of permaculture, she makes connections to several for each seasonal segment.
Every grade level includes the principle of observe and interact, which sets a foundation for science learning. Because it’s fall right now, I dove into the kindergarten segment for fall: Getting to Know the Garden. These lessons focus on exploring the garden, saving seeds, planting bulbs, and learning about soil, mulch and compost.
Connected to Next Generation Science Standards
As a former developer of nationally-distributed science curriculum, I especially appreciate that Christopher’s book does not pretend to meet all the standards. Instead, at the end of each lesson, she suggests how further in-class study could extend understanding of one related disciplinary core idea (DCI). This makes learning manageable and also reinforces the idea that learning in the garden is not separate from, but part of a child’s education. She states, “Gardening is no longer a supplemental subject, but part of a students’ whole learning” (p. 10).
“I want children to watch leaves change colors and get an itchy sense nagging at them, from from deep inside their bodies and minds, that now is the time to prepare the garden for winter.”Christopher, p. 3
An A+ Accomplishment
I like this book so much, I decided to design a course using it. Sustaining School Gardens through Professional Learning Community meets four Saturdays throughout the year and asks participants to try one applicable grade-level lesson from each section of the book.
Last Saturday, an intimate yet focused group of educators met, discussed, and explored a garden space to learn about principles of permaculture. We applied the concepts to our respective school sites and then made a commitment to try one lesson before our winter meeting. I can’t wait to regroup with them and find out if they like this book as much as I do!
In the School Garden Curriculum, Christopher offers a rare gem in the field of garden-based learning that clearly capitalizes on her numerous years of experience leading children in learning outdoors. Planted firmly in experiential and place-based learning, this book is a must-have for any schools trying to create “a unique and valuable garden culture.” The lessons she offers for students are developmentally appropriate, authentic, and easy to use.
The lessons for educators are even more precious. It’s precisely the kind of dual messaging that makes me wish I had written this book. 😉
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