First graders at St. John the Baptist School observe the beautiful flowers that have developed from the seedlings they planted a year ago

Gardens Grow Minds: The School as Green Educator

by Mary Quattlebaum

“We have a garden! With flowers and butterflies!” The third graders beam as they describe their wildlife garden during my author visit to St. John the Baptist (SJB) School in Maryland.

I thought about their enthusiasm and the dedicated teachers and parent volunteer, Mary Phillips, I met that day as I researched and wrote Jo MacDonald Had a Garden. How best to convey a child’s joy in digging and planting while offering teachers and parents helpful information on starting and/or teaching with a school or backyard garden?

MACG_COVERThese days, schools, such as SJB, can be the venues best positioned for nurturing a child’s wonder in the natural world. I grew up with a dad who shared his curiosity about nature with his seven kids and umpteen grandkids and showed us how to garden. (He’s the model for Old MacDonald, Jo’s grandfather, in my book, which is an eco-friendly riff on the popular song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”)

But in today’s fast-paced, busy world and with diminishing green spaces, these “growing experiences” and “life lessons” may be missing from childhood.

Happily, SJB seems to be part of a national trend, with an increasing number of schools adding an “outdoor classroom” to the traditional learning environment. At the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Senior Coordinator Nicole Rousmaniere, who manages school programs, shared recent statistics. More than 4200 schools have started schoolyard habitats that help sustain regional wildlife, she says, with an additional 300 to 400 being added yearly.

Rousmaniere emphasizes that commitment rather than size is the key to an effective “green education” from school gardens. Small can be powerful. Having children plant and care for native plants in containers or in a little patch beside a school can foster lessons in biology and stewardship. Indoor “green” activities pique youngsters’ interest in learning and doing even more. (Dawn has such activities online and in the back of all its children’s books, including Jo MacDonald Had a Garden.)

“Kids love a garden, but you’ve got to start them young,” says William Moss, a master gardener and horticultural educator. Advocating for school and small-space gardening, Moss writes the popular “Moss in the City” blog for the National Gardening Association, hosts HGTV’s “Dig In” and is a greening contributor to “The Early Show” on CBS.

Just about any subject can be taught through a garden, says Moss, including science, math, natural history, geography, nutrition, reading and writing.

A garden offers hands-on and experiential learning, says Phillips, the parent volunteer who helped SJB’s science teacher to create the school garden three years ago. Phillips has seen teachers use the garden to teach units on pollination, history, the food chain and the ozone. Her blog www.theabundantbackyard.com showcases student art inspired by the garden and by the art teacher’s lessons on Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings. An added bonus, says Phillips, is that the garden, in addition to enriching academic studies and creative expression, also stimulates the brain, enhances sensory awareness and gets kids outdoors for some exercise.

I thought of all these points so beautifully articulated by Moss, Phillips and Rousmaniere as I researched and wrote Jo MacDonald Had a Garden. My hope, along with illustrator Laura Bryant’s, was not only to playfully introduce youngsters to wiggling worms, fluttering birds and growing plants but to make it easy for teachers and parents to build on basic lessons.

School gardens can be the start of a learning experience that grows over a lifetime. As NWF’s Rousmaniere points out, just as schools teach the 3 R’s, so, too, they might provide a setting that connects children with and increases their knowledge about the natural world. One of the most important lessons to learn young is stewardship, says Rousmaniere, the idea that we are all caretakers of the earth and its wild inhabitants.

Resources for Starting and Learning from a School Garden

William Moss, horticultural educator www.wemoss.org
National Gardening Association www.kidsgardening.org
National Wildlife Federation www.nwf.org
Mary Phillips, school garden advocate www.theabundantbackyard.com

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of Jo MacDonald Had a Garden and numerous other children’s books. She and her family enjoy watching the birds, bugs and other wild creatures that visit their urban backyard habitat. www.maryquattlebaum.com