Core Principles Series: Make it Hands-On

Contributed by Nancy Lim, Board Member, School Garden Doctor

As students spend increasingly more time sitting at desks, they really need more hands-on learning opportunities in their school day. When students are engaged with their hands and their minds, they actually are more focused and motivated to learn. As a classroom teacher, I looked for opportunities to get students doing hands-on activities outside. When we get students outside regularly, it becomes a part of what we do.

A school garden is an inviting space to make classroom curriculum come alive and show “real-life” meaning to students as they learn. In Teaching in Nature’s Classroom, Nathan Larson describes how “the physical nature of the garden learning environment is especially well suited to kinesthetic learning. Children commonly learn by doing in the garden.”

Let’s take a look at three examples of “learning by doing” in the garden:

•. It’s planting time. My students were eager to start planting in the class garden. First, I posed a question: how could we ensure that each student had an equal planting area? Oh, well, my second graders had tons of ideas! After a lively brainstorming session, we decided to measure the garden boxes and give each student the same-sized planting area. In small groups, with string, yardsticks and rulers, students measured the length and width (ie. perimeter) of each garden box. Based on our measurements, each student would have a 12″ planting area. The students were satisfied with the result; it met their high need for fairness. And they had a real-world example of geometric measurement. Each student decorated a name card and we stapled it to the garden box.

Worms, worms, worms. When we were digging and preparing the garden box soil, I overheard a loud exclamation. “Ewwwww! I found a worm!” Jayatri was grossed out. Many children, like her, would have the same reaction. Some kids are less likely to find worms attractive while others will take to the “gross” worms immediately. Some children may be afraid the first time they hold a worm. Jayatri’s discovery gave us a chance to learn about some benefits of earthworms like how they increase soil aeration and are big decomposers of organic matter. The children were surprised that these “gross” worms were helpers in the garden. With increased motivation, the students went searching for more worms in the garden. Seeing the worms wriggling in the soil was more engaging than reading about them in a book.

•. Composting is nature’s recycling! To enhance our class garden and strengthen the students’ environmental stewardship, we started composting. This project was rich in science teaching and learning and was a true collaboration. It helped students learn what waste can and cannot be converted into compost. After recess and lunch, students deposited banana peels, apple cores, orange peels, egg shells, vegetable stems into our compost bin. Our class gardeners would “churn” the compost bin contents and occasionally add leaves and grass. This project had a lasting impact on the students, from observing the their food scraps decomposing to applying the organic material back into the garden boxes.

Evidence for the beneficial impacts of hands-on learning can come in many forms and you can observe some of this evidence yourself. But make no mistake, hands-on learning is an evidence-based practice. The central role that experience plays in the learning process can be lost in the rush to impart academic skills to children (Kolb, 1984; Roberts, 2011). Experiential learning in gardens helps students develop capacities for observation and analysis (Kellert, 2002; Mabie &. Baker, 1996).

Larson writes that by “emphasizing hands-on, immersive, project-based learning in the garden, you will make the most of your dynamic outdoor learning environment” and that the broad impact of hands-on learning extends beyond the garden. “Research indicates that hands on learning experiences help children to develop enduring bonds with nature that support an ethic of environmental stewardship and leadership later in life.”

Sometimes, the best education we can deliver is accomplished
simply by providing our students with the space
and support to learn through their own exploration of outdoor learning environments.

– Nathan Larson

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