Core Principles Series: Let the Garden Be the Teacher

Yesterday, while taking advantage of some nice weather between much-needed rain in Northern California, I uncovered a hiding spot for salamanders. As an aspiring DIYer, I often have leftover planks of wood or random bits of material lying around the yard. Nearly every time I move these things around, I find something cool underneath. The more often kids are engaged in garden spaces, the more likely opportunities to let the principle, “Let the Garden Be the Teacher” will arise.

In Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education, Nathan Larson points out that “teachable moments” (Havigurst, 1953, as cited in Larson, 2015) may feel like a distraction from a planned lesson. However, he also contends (and I agree) that the more our observations are in tune with seasonal cycles and natural patterns, the more we can plan for these moments. Here’s a notable example: Beware of the Red Cage Fungus! is one such moment in which students came to the garden for one purpose, but had an engaging experience with a phenomenon that only happens under certain conditions. (It’s also the most highly read post on this blog, surpassing 5K views since 2016!). If we understand when and how these moments occur, we can more readily learn from the garden, not just in the garden.

Back in 2013-14, I was observing a garden educator lead garden lessons at a K-6 school. She had just 30 minutes with each group and saw more than 400 kids each week, so her lessons had to be carefully orchestrated. She was an expert at navigating materials for multiple groups without delivering redundant lessons (i.e., every grade level had a different focus). For instance, second grade students would plant daffodil bulbs in 4″ containers in fall and first grade students would later observe those bulbs when they emerged in spring. (Students would then take them home to plant in their yards, fostering a home to school connection.) Yet, I was somewhat surprised when the observations strayed from more authentic scientific sketching to a direct instruction vocabulary lesson. Consider whether the garden was the teacher in the the example below:

Upon entering the garden, children select a four-inch pot from the dozens that were planted with a daffodil bulb months before by their younger schoolmates. Children carry their plants into the classroom, where they are given paper on which they will draw their daffodil. The teacher draws a daffodil on the board and points out each part of the plant while naming it (“This is the stem.”) Students repeat the names and replicate the drawing. Even though each student has a daffodil at a slightly different stage of growth, student drawings mirror that which the teacher drew on the board. The teacher provides basic instructions for how to plant the bulb in the ground when they get home.

~ Strohl, 2015, Cooking & Gardening in School

From a school-based perspective, the lesson may have looked like many others that occur in K-2 classrooms. That’s what caught my attention as a researcher: isn’t one of the goals of garden-based education to offer something altogether different from typical classroom instruction? In their seminal work, Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education, Williams and Brown (2012) suggest, “In a lifeless and concrete school building environment, learning gardens are a way to bring life to schools and schools to life (p. x).” They mean this both literally (increasing biodiversity) and metaphorically (making lessons more lively).

A student carrying the actual daffodil bulb plant.

Although the children were interacting with observable phenomenon in the natural world–how a bulb produces a plant and flower–they were guided to focus on a static representation of a daffodil rather than the actual plant they saw in front of them. The teacher introduced vocabulary words related to the parts of a plant (roots, stem, leaves, flower), which is useful knowledge in the real world in at any time when one is working with plants. But notice how all the drawings mimic the teacher’s model. They were all looking at bulbs in different stages of development. If the garden had been the teacher, students would draw what they see, not what the human teacher drew. Compare that with another approach.

Upon entering the garden, children select a four-inch pot from the dozens that were planted with a daffodil bulb months before by their younger schoolmates First, the children are prompted to make observations of the plant growth. They invoke scientific language, completing the sentence starters, “I notice…”. After children share their observations with their peers (e.g., “Some of the plants have flowers, others do not”), the teacher asks them to place the bulbs that look ‘youngest’ on one end of a continuum and those that look ‘oldest’ on the other. With each plant placement, students justify their choice using their observations as evidence (e.g., “This bulb has a flower that is open, so it goes at the end of the line.”). The teacher reminds students that all of the bulbs were planted at the same time and prompts them to think about how they could be such different sizes. Students collect data about the growth of their selected bulb before taking them home to plant in the ground.

~ Strohl, 2015, Cooking & Gardening in School

In the above description, children are also interacting with observable phenomenon in the natural world: how a bulb produces a plant and flower. In this case, however, children make observations, justify claims, and explain their reasoning—scientific practices that enable them not only to better understand the natural and material world, but make use of what is happening, in real time, in the living system of a garden. Rather than recite and write vocabulary words, they will use them in a meaningful context.

Larson writes, “The garden provides young people with the valuable opportunity to learn through direct observation, exploration, and experimentation” (p. 13). To make any garden lesson optimal, leave space for the garden to be the teacher.

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