School Gardens | Elizabeth Baker
Elizabeth Baker is the Associate Professor of Practice TTS/Math-Science 4 + 1 Program Director at the School of Education at Mills College.
“What we observe is not nature itself but nature observed to our method of questioning.” –Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
In 1995, California launched the “Garden in Every School” program, and since then the Department of Education has provided standards, curriculum, and evaluative research for school gardens. In addition, the legislature has enacted several bills that promote and (partially) fund school gardens. In 2003, when I was hired to work on an NSF grant using a garden-based mathematics curriculum, there were 3,000 public edible school gardens in California. By 2008 when our grant ended, there were 6,000 schools participating in the edible school garden movement (http://cns.ucdavis.edu/news/index.cfm). Currently, the California School Garden Network reckons that there are close to 10,000 schools participating.
Our state continues to emphasize nutrition education and health through the CA Nutrition Services Department, which now manages the Garden in Every School program. Consequently, we see many raised bed vegetable boxes on typically asphalt-covered or flat green space. School gardens in public urban areas generally do not contain intimate spaces, wild spaces, or even much digging room. Often there is no place to sit or gather a group of students together. There are exceptions, most notably The Edible School Yard at the MLK garden in Berkeley, and two of my favorite spaces: Franklin Elementary and Joaquin Miller in Oakland. Although there are detractors, the most incendiary being Caitlin Flanagan (Cultivating Failure in the January 1, 2010 issue of the Atlantic Monthly), incorporating a school garden into elementary and some secondary schools continues to be on the side of the angels, and research backs up the academic and social/behavioral merits. (See, for example, Lieberman and Hoody, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning, a 1992 paper presented at the State Education and Environmental Roundtable San Diego; D. Blair, The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative review of the Benefits of School Gardening, in the Journal of Environmental Education, Winter, Vol. 40, issue 2 in 2009.)
I recently returned from an inspiring trip to England that included visits to gardens, including school gardens. I was struck by the diversity and creative use of small school garden spaces for academic use. Perhaps because there has been a long history of gardening as a national pastime, of small home gardens, and of community vegetable allotments, the educational use focused more on creating interesting, diverse, and/or beautiful spots for students to be in –in other words, the emphasis was more on wonder and less on fava beans.For example, some schools, taking their lead from the British Natural History Museum, and perhaps less worried about bee stings or law suits from bee stings, kept bee houses if they found bees near the school. If there was a source of unwanted timber, typically tree stumps, schools made “stumperies”. When I asked what were the best kind of stumps for stumperies, I was told “the ones available!” These are seeded with ferns and soil then left to be; as they decompose, they become a great habitat. Schools emphasize increasing wildlife and diversity, and the students are counting, year after year. Counting the rain, the sun, the clouds, the insects, the arachnids, the birds, the ferns, and the plants that appear. The students use data from past years’ classes, and as the years add up so do the questions and evidence about what new has arrived and in what quantities, what the climate is up to, and what change is happening. Elementary gardens don’t look so elementary. They are intensely local just as the students are.
I know that some of our schools are doing these kinds of things too: creating habitat gardens for butterflies; bee- and pollinator-friendly plantings that may include vegetables too, and other naturalized and native plant areas. But even though we live in a place where we can harvest strawberries in November, it is hard work and most of the work falls on the shoulders of teachers. I can attest to the community building and wonderful things that can happen on “community garden days” (a euphuism for weeding) in our local public schools, but I am hoping we can opt for a certain spaciousness of thinking and planning in our school garden spaces that allow for things to emerge –a constructivist approach to school gardens, if you will. Let’s resist the pressing urge to align all of the garden work to the standards, guidelines, and benchmarks, and justify it with the test scores. Resist imposing specific questions with correct answers. Resist imposing order to the planter boxes. Let’s instead create spaces that invite paying close attention, welcoming places for students to be idle and just observe and develop their own method for questions.