classroomgardenby Julie Lancaster

Last year, I left the OE world that I love so much and went back to school to get my teaching credential/MA Education. I felt that loving education as much as I do, it would be extremely beneficial to study it! Finding myself headed toward student teaching in the classroom, I kept reaffirming my commitment to OE, and vowed that I would reenter that world once I was finished with my program.

Well, I survived learning and teaching in a traditional classroom setting, and I still have a love of teaching and learning outdoors (of course). After finishing my program this past July, I jumped into a new direction that bridged OE and the school system. I have become the Special Programs Director at an elementary school, where as one of my primary jobs is creating and teaching K-6 in a school garden (AKA Life Lab or Garden Classroom). It is absolutely wonderful.

Now, on the grounds of Spring Hill Elementary School in Santa Cruz, California, you’ll find the usual set of slides, climbing structures and monkey bars. You’ll also find something else, more than 5,000 sq. ft. of garden complete with planter boxes, seedlings, scarecrows, wheelbarrows and the beginnings of enough healthy looking fruits and vegetables to make any home gardener envious.

With the help of a generous grant from the Lee-Kahn Foundation – a local and national non-profit organization dedicated to advancing humane growth through increased access to education, health care and the arts, the students are able to experience hands-on, experiential learning every week!

I’ve taught school gardening programs for the Peace Corps in Southern Africa, I’m currently on the board of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Friends of the Farm and Garden, have been working in experiential education for 10 years. I am passionate about the garden and the students’ growth. The kids are up their knees in dirt and loving every minute of it.

Kids don’t always realize where the food they eat actually comes from, what it’s made from, and whether it’s good for them or not, noted Laura Rinaldi, whose daughter Rowen is a third grader at Spring Hill. “Tell them that spaghetti sauce is made from tomatoes that grow in the ground and they look at you in amazement,” she said. However, nine year old, Rowen, who is planting peas and carrots in one of the garden’s planter boxes, has discovered a more immediate, practical and kid-friendly benefit of gardening – how the fruits of her labor will eliminate the need for tedious grocery shopping trips with her mother. “Wow, if we can grow our own food, we’ll never have to go to the grocery store again,” she exclaimed. “That’s cool!”

In addition, Spring Hill’s student gardeners also have the opportunity to learn from workers at the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project, a non-profit organization that employs and trains homeless people in Santa Cruz County within a community supported organic garden enterprise. The project’s manager, Patrick Williams, has invited Spring Hill students to spend time working alongside members of the project at their Natural Bridges Farm. “Kids working with people of low-income is a great way to forge a sense of community,” said Williams. “This will definitely be a case of people helping people to help themselves.”

School gardens are growing in popularity. And with good reason, say their advocates. They teach a myriad of valuable skills in a way no teacher, computer or book ever could. Simply organizing and planting a garden teaches kids about science, math, conservation, ecology, where their food comes from, nutrition, and so much more. School gardens help students develop a larger sense of community, as they (students) all become stewards of the garden, their school, and the community.

You might say that school gardens bring a little bit of OE close to home. Just like the students whom you meet each week at your outdoor school who see a coyote for the first time, marvel at scat, and learn that dead logs are teaming with life, these students are getting a taste of that in their school yards.

Julie Lancaster is an AEOE member & previous southern AEOE chair. She can be reached at