Voices in Education

Garden-Based Learning for Student Success
With President Obama’s signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, the landscape for children's education shifts once again. Advocates hope it moves away from an oversized focus on test scores and instead centers on a renewed opportunity to invite teachers to the policy making table. But it also means that the educational fates of the most vulnerable children revert to the hands of individual states. The challenges implicit in ESSA loom as large as the possibilities.

Teachers don’t stop for educational policy changes, of course, not even for momentous ones. They build their boats as they sail them because students can’t wait to learn. For the thirty-five million students enrolled in public PreK–eighth grade schools, this year– like every year– is a critical learning period in their young lives. For their sakes, we must make ESSA an improvement for education in the lives of every student. This country made a commitment fifty years ago to making educational opportunities accessible to all children through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whether struggling toward English proficiency, carrying the weight of learning disabilities, coming from families with fewer resources, or all of the above. We have no time to lose in getting teachers the tools they require to help all of their students obtain the education they are each promised.

One of the things all teachers need is a school yard learning garden. As the director of a school garden program serving over 6,000 students in 23 urban public schools, I witness how garden-based learning works in the hands of more than 400 teachers. These teachers employ a wide range of instructional styles for children as young as 3 and as old as 14. Their students are low income and middle income; many are English language learners, or on special education plans; and many are also typical learners. All of them, however, experience learning outside in their school yard garden. That means they share a vocabulary of the natural world. They are introduced to life sciences by growing food right in their own neighborhood. They naturally develop a facility with science skills such as deep observation, collecting and analyzing data for a purpose. By exploring their garden, they are invited to wonder.

There’s been dangerously little thought given to what happens when children don’t experience garden-based learning. Some children, of course, will have ample opportunities to understand what they’ve missed at school. They are fortunate to have enough family and cultural resources to spark and sustain academic mastery. Not true for the child who has never explored a garden, tasted an edible plant she grew herself, or been invited to put her hands deep into the earth. Garden-based learning at school levels the playing field in astoundingly simple ways. And as more and more school districts are discovering, garden-based learning can support teachers’ curriculums rather than burdening them with one more thing to track.

As Jack Jennings noted in this blog in December 2015, the era of ESSA could possibly usher in a new focus on the questions “how can students learn more and how can teachers be of the greatest help to their students?” Insisting that all schools have a learning garden and implementing evidence-based support for teachers are ideas that we can’t afford not to harvest.

About the Author: Jane S. Hirschi is the director of the CitySprouts program in Cambridge and Boston public schools (www.citysprouts.org) and the author of Ripe for Change: Garden-Based Learning in Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2015).