How does your garden grow?

Over one-quarter of Canadian children are obese or overweight. What’s more, public health experts are warning that this generation of youth may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.Elementary and secondary schools nationwide are taking this cause into their own hands and implementing tactics that focus on healthier school lunch plans, more in-depth nutritional education and fitness over athleticism in physical education classes. One particular tactic has been gaining in popularity recently and shows no signs of slowing down: Through private funding, collaborations with local farmers and support from nonprofit organizations like Evergreen, many schools are finding success in a hands-on learning approach through school-sponsored gardens.

The theory behind these gardens is that in providing both experiential nutrition education and a source of fresh produce to be used in school-provided lunches and snacks, students can benefit from healthier diets and eating habits.

But that’s not all. School gardens also have shown to provide the opportunity for students to learn about responsibility, biology and environmentalism. In fact, recent studies have found that students who participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students who had no garden-based learning experiences.
If implementing a garden at your school sounds like an intriguing way to promote nutrition and create better stewards of the environment, consider these five tips for establishing your own garden today:

  1. Get everyone on board
    Perhaps the idea of a school garden already fits in with existing nutrition or science curricula or your school recently received grant money from an initiative like the WWF Canada Green CommUnity School Grants Program. Or, maybe your school has yet to take on a healthful approach to education and is looking to get started. No matter the educational or health motives, propose the idea of a school garden to administration, teachers, parents and even students, stressing the potential benefits to everyone involved. Gardens are very much a community effort and aren’t likely to grow unless the entire school gets behind the idea. Consider holding stakeholder forums to discuss garden ideas in a collaborative environment—creatively invite those to participate by sending an invitation with a fun giveaway like a leaf-shaped pencil for students or an Over-the-Sink Strainer for adults.
  2. Establish a budget that works
    The thing about school gardens is that they are scalable and can fit practically any budget—from a bean sprout per student to grow inside the classroom, to a few tomato plants just off the playground, to a full-on sustainable food source for the cafeteria. Start the process by planning for the type of garden—indoors, per student, per class, outdoors, etc.—and work out from there to assess the tools and materials needed, such as shovels, planters, potting soil or dirt, seeds or seedlings, fertilizer, hardware, cloth and more. Supplies can be purchased and used as a whole, or each class or grade can be responsible for a certain aspect of the garden. Equip each teacher with tools like a Garden Tool Roll Up Kit for maximum upkeep efficiency. Don’t forget that gardens make great community partner opportunities, too. Consider approaching local farms, hardware stores or landscape companies to donate materials and advice in-kind.
  3. Build a curriculum
    Even if a school garden is created with the primary intention of supplying fresh produce to the lunch room, there should still be an educational link for students to benefit from and not just in the areas of health and science. Brainstorm ways to incorporate school gardens across different classes—language arts students can sit by the garden and journal while art students can sketch plants or press the blooms. For more ideas, sites like LifeLabKids Gardening and Gardening with Children offer extensive groupings of lesson plans and classroom ideas for school gardening.
  4. Incite excitement
    Finally, get excited! School gardens in this case are a fun, new learning experience and a great way to build pride among students, parents and teachers. Use your school garden as another way to bring everyone together for a school-wide parent or community event by holding a kick-off picnic at the beginning of a growing season or a harvest festival in the fall. Send everyone home with a garden fact sheet outlining the efforts and results of the garden each year and a fun souvenir like our Seed Packs or Grow Kits or a Salad To Go Container to continue the garden experience at home.

With the right planning, experiential education through school gardens can be quite successful for students and schools alike, all you have to do is get growing!

Canadian Institutes of Health Research. “Funding Announced for Research to Combat Childhood Obesity.” Web. 2 August 2010.

Bennett, Lisa. “The School Garden Debate: To Weep or Reap? | Center for Ecoliteracy.Education for Sustainability | Center for Ecoliteracy. Web. 27 July 2010.

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