Published on December 3rd, 2013 | by Guest Contributor0
How to Create a School Garden
An epiphany dawns, warming you to your fingertips while a smile plays at the corner of your lips. Your face begins to glow and a diamond-like sparkle comes into your eyes. Invariably, whether you vocalize it or not, comes the word “Yes!” This was my experience with my decision to create a school garden. A school garden is just one type of outdoor classroom that you might wish to plan for your neighborhood school.
How awesome would it be to have a place for kids to learn where food comes from, taste something orange that is not artificially colored and flavored, and to have a connection to earth processes? For many, the initial excitement is not enough to get the project off the ground, either because of the lofty nature of the idea, or from our consistently busy schedules. And before the school garden dream can be actualized, there will be many details to work out along the way. Some of these will be of a political nature. Others will be regulatory. And yet others will be a lack of knowledge. But these can be overcome! Let’s begin with the basics: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How to start a school garden or outdoor classroom.
1) What is the goal of the Outdoor Classroom?
There are many options for what type of outdoor classroom would fit the needs of the teachers and students. Vegetable gardening, edible landscaping, native wild edibles, a pond and wildlife habitat, butterfly gardens and native forest or grassland ecosystems are just a sampling of what is possible. Often their will be teachers who are using an area for another activity, such as running in the fall, therefore a mixed-use design should be considered.
2) Who, at your local school, is supportive of this idea of an outdoor classroom?
The most successful long-term outdoor classrooms consist of a committee that includes the principal, three or more teachers, Parent-Teacher organization representatives, a community adviser or two and some capable and interested students. Without a committee, a community classroom will not have the support necessary for it to continue for more than two or three years, or at least until the teacher who started it leaves, or the initiating and organizing parent is burned-out.
3) When would be a good time to start?
Getting a committee together may take awhile given busy schedules and many demands on educators and the principals. Having ready materials to kick-start the process when you do have buy-in and a committee assembled will help keep the spark of forward momentum going. One way to do this is to have hand-outs ready for grants to be applied to, a needs assessment to be given and returned from all people who work at the school (including cafeteria staff and custodians) because their may be some information that will change the design and needs to be met for an outcome that may be different than what you imagine. The actual gardening will begin only after these bits of information are compiled.
4) Where should this Outdoor classroom be?
The choice of location will often include some sort of challenges, such as the location being far away from a spigot to water the plants, soil that is not fertile or even contaminated. Always, always get soil samples taken and do not plant edible foods near to a roadway because of the possibility of contamination from substances such as lead. Once you’ve a budget in place, including donations of services and plants, be sure that this is the very first thing that is done… preferably with a few classes involved, as this is a wonderful lesson in the sciences, and will give students a direct understanding of humans impacts on the natural environment with it’s outcome.
5) Why should the school have an outdoor classroom?
This is the most important question of all to ask. Your answer may be very different than anyone else, as well as likely more passionate. Don’t let this stop you! The more varied the “why’s” the stronger the possibility an outdoor classroom will happen. You may wish to have many why’s in your back pocket, so to speak. You may also wish to start with a topic of mutual agreement to pave the road with “yesses.” Is your wish to have vegetable plots? Then an assertion then question such as this might work: “I know you are concerned with the complete welfare of each and every child in this school, and for that I am thankful for your leadership. Are you supportive of initiatives to allow children to eat healthfully in this age of increasing rates of diabetes?”
6) How do you go about making this dream a reality?
By listening. If you are not willing to listen to others concerns, which can include anything from space or time to regulations and curriculum integration or unwilling teachers, then why should you be listened to? Not only is this a matter of respect, it is one where you will learn about hurdles to be overcome. Are the principal’s hands tied in regards to how the property the school sits on is used? Then help untie them through collaboration.
Other questions may arise during this planning that include knowing what to plant when when there is no caretaker in the summer for vegetable gardens. How to blend educational standards with lesson plans. With clear communication, support, a clear why and a bit of time, an outdoor classroom can be accessible to nearly every school.
Have you been involved in creating a school garden program? We’d love to hear your outcome in the comment section below!
Planting a garden image from Shutterstock.