How could I possibly think that something as primitive as gardening could be a powerful tool for public schools.
Are gardening classes for public schools really a good idea?
I am sharing these stories from real life examples that I have gotten to be part of first hand as the Seed to Table Manager at an elementary school in Iowa. I pray that you’ll see the benefit that a simple gardening class can provide real world, real life skills, that are applicable across all standards of education, and the cost can be minute, compared to the benefits it provides to students. Please keep reading…all the way to the end to understand what I mean, then I would challenge you to start asking questions of your local school board, questioning, “Why don’t we have a gardening program? They are doing this at a tiny school in Iowa. Shouldn’t we have the same advantage as this elementary school?”
Are gardening classes for public schools really a good idea?
The answer is simply, yes. Yes, gardening classes for students, especially in elementary school, should be required for the hundreds of ways that gardening can reinforce, support and instill topics taught in required class settings at public schools.
If you’re like me, I’m going to assume most of you had a public school education. You all went to the nearest school that your town or towns funneled into. You went through school learning with a group of students roughly the same age as you, and then you finally had graduation after roughly 13 years of schooling. 13 years is a long time to learn a lot of information, but I can just about guarantee that you cannot remember what the topic was on that American History test from Chapter 4, or what assignment on pages 267-272 of your math text book, or even what the parts of an animal cell are and how they are different from a plant cell. I bet you don’t remember these things because our brains funnel out the non-life changing information and puts it into harder to access storage that doesn’t have a memorable action or time to that your brain can pinpoint.
What do you remember from public school?
I bet though that you do remember that time you spent weeks designing on paper, cutting, sanding, painting followed by racing and repairing over and over again until you were the champion CO2 car racer in the state. You also probably remember that time you talked to Carl Bernstein on the phone with your History Day partner, and recorded it on your cassette tape recorder in the principal’s office. The panic and heart ache you felt when you remembered you forgot the headboard for your presentation board and had to rush to make a new one the night before the competition because you were hours away from home. I do. I remember these moments for a variety of reasons.
I’m going to run with this History Day project example for a minute. I remember these parts of my education because I was allowed to think for myself, think creatively, problem solve and come up with the best solution, all while tying together topics I learned in a combination of classes. Think about it, we used math to measure that headboard space, we had to think about that time in science we talked about the importance of recycling to figure out how to find newspapers at midnight, from our computers class we used the skills of of matching the font size to what we needed for the headboard, we had to calculate the hours of sleep we would get, what time we needed to wake up to get ready to look presentable, eat breakfast and walk to our presentation space, we had to time our presentation, practice, work together as a team, and many other life skills that simply weren’t taught in just one class.
I strongly believe we remember and utilize information best with hands-on experiences where we have to test, incorporate a variety of skills at one time, and to do this in community with other people. I think this is the case because we are using several areas of the brain to develop skills that we need to survive. What better way to teach survival tactics than to be immersed in a gardening class? I would challenge you to think of a better way to teach all “standards” teachers are to hit with their students every year based on their age.
What public schools are supposed to teach
Here are the standard areas, in Iowa, as of 2023 that teachers are to hit each year with their group of same-aged children, called grades. If you want to click through to see what students are to be learning in Iowa, go for it.
The Iowa Academic Standards tell us that we are to teach our students in the following subject areas:
- 21st Century Skills
- Civic Literacy
- Employability Skills
- Financial Literacy
- Health Literacy
- Technology Literacy
- Essential Elements
- Science Social Studies
- Split into grade specific units
- Again, split into grade specific units
- Yet again, split into grade specific units
- Iowa Core Science Standards
- Evidence Statements
- College and Career Readiness
- Social Studies
- You got it, split into grade specific units
Why gardening classes are a good fit for all standards.
Gardening classes teach students all of these skills (standards) simultaneously throughout a variety of examples that the students can work with, physically, while getting their hands dirty, explore without a high level of safety risk, along with many other benefits, such as outdoor exposure, green spaces, physical activity and more…. Let’s take 3rd grade for example.
Just to be logistical about this…
Let’s go to 21st Century Skills, then to Employability Skills.
Let’s pretend that this school has a greenhouse. The gardening teacher instructs them to come up with a way to meet this goal….flash forward to the example at our elementary school. Students have figured out they can grow cabbage seed in the greenhouse starting in February to produce quality cabbage to sell at the local grocery store in the summer. They also learn by reading reviews and information in catalogs and online that not all cabbages grow at the same rate. Students learn to stagger their plantings two weeks apart, marked on a calendar. They also find out a certain type of seed yields bigger heads of cabbage with less pest damage and they can get more money for this type of cabbage grown from this company’s seed. Oh wait…then they find out that they can grow their cabbage out to seed, save back seed and plant it from year to year, meaning they don’t have to buy seed every year. Hang on, they also find out they can use scraps from food waste in the cafeteria for free, leaves that collect in the garden fence for free, and combine it with their chicken manure to make compost that makes their cabbages grow 10% faster than the year before by giving them this treatment, meaning they can plant more, harvest faster, sell more, and make more money.
Did you just see it too?! Did you see how this trivial gardening example turned into a multi-step, life sustaining, real world example that these students can put into practice for a future career.
Ok, so let’s try a Social Studies Standard for a 3rd grade student because it might be hard to see the connection between gardening and social studies…
So, let’s stick to the cabbage example. So now these students want to learn how to make and sell sauerkraut because they have too many cabbages to sell to the one grocery store, and no one else in town wants to buy them, so they need a way to preserve their product. We could talk about how in 1902 Dr. Harvey Wiley found out how chemicals present in foods can affect the body, and how in 1906 Upton Sinclair wrote a book that eventually influenced the Pure Food and Drug Act., but wow…that was soooo long ago. How does that affect our kids now? They want to know if they can sell sauerkraut.
So now our kids go down the rabbit hole of figuring out about the Iowa Cottage Foods requirements. Then that pesky science thing pops up about making sure their product has a pH value of 4.60 or lower. So then they have to make a batch of sauerkraut to figure out the pH, oh.. and they have to read and understand what those rules mean, and which one we would fall under, and then.. oh boy. If they can’t figure it out, who do they ask, what do they ask, and how do they contact them. Those are such terrible skills to know how to utilize. This is an example of how adults would go about figuring out this information in the real world if they couldn’t understand it for themselves.
Ok, so you catch my drift on that portion, I hope. Students are required to make a lot of decisions, do a lot of research, experiment and try new things, but also on a deadline. Because guess what, if they wait too long, those cabbages are going to just be chicken food, and well..that’s going to cost us $2.49 per head of cabbage, but wait…then that can be converted into eggs, and those chickens are utilizing 2% less feed than when we don’t feed them cabbage, and they still turn that food into eggs, something we can eat.
Goodness…now we can learn how to cook those eggs. What fat should we use to cook those eggs in? Butter, nope, because butter is in short demand, but I know that coconut oil is a saturated fat, and will cook roughly the same as butter, and it won’t burn as fast as olive oil because it has a higher smoke point. But, like, I heard that I shouldn’t use butter or coconut oil because they’re saturated fats, and bad for your heart…Whoa…there’s some more learning in science, food science, dietetics and more that we could go into. We could even make it into a debate and hit on these literacy standards shown below, and have students decide for themselves, presented with important information, what decision they want to make, because ultimately, it’s their body.
More supporting facts as to why gardening classes for public school students should be required
But wait…you’re telling me, all of this learning came from a silly gardening example, about cabbage, nonetheless. Yes. Yes, it did. That is how a gardening example reinforced something taught in their required classes. This is just one example of the endless possibilities that gardening class can and does reinforce for students. Information can be taught about anything related to agriculture and conservation in gardening classes, and can be tailored to fit students’ interests.
Did you also know that gardening classes can help students with the top ten soft skills employers are looking for for any profession according to Novoresume. The top ten soft skills employers want include (with examples, based on the garden):
- Time management
- I need to get two flats of cabbage planted by February 17, make cuttings of succulents to have them ready for Halloweeen, and deliver cut flowers to the florist by 2:00 p.m.
- I got a flat tire on the way to the florist, I need to call and tell them I’ll be late.
- I didn’t get to the florist on time, I guess I’ll have to check our honey bees tomorrow because it’s dark out now.
- Deer keep eating my sunflowers. I need a way to keep them out, but I don’t have electricity.
- I will communicate with a local farmer to loan me a spare mower battery until I can get to town to get one.
- A Derecho blew down my flowers. I’ll turn a destroyed area into something beautiful, and bring hope and joy by decorating a fallen tree in a park with the flowers I cannot sell any more.
- We figure out next steps and people to call after a tornado in March to get the farm operational by June.
- Interpersonal skills
- I cannot attend my co-workers family member’s funeral, however, I can reach out and ask how they’re doing, and ask if I can bring a meal to them.
- Work ethic
- “Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.” -Abraham Lincoln
- Attention to detail
- There are 29 sunflowers in this bucket instead of 30, and I’ll put in two extras in case of broken ones.
Not only that, but I’m blown away by our students’ ability to present in front of other people. Students get the opportunity to share out loud, share in front of others, and get exposure to people in the public a variety of ages.
Wait, I’m not finished though. In an article written by Andrew Avitt from the Office of Communication of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture mentions the work of Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and the positive effect being in nature has on people’s physical wellness, mental wellness and wellness in the community. Some of the benefits include an increase in life expectancy, improved sleep quality and reduced cancer risk, lower risk of depression and faster psychological stress recovery, along with strengthening our focus and attention and mental capacities, and even lowering crime.
Did you know being outside can also help your eyesight?! In an article written by Dr. Russel Lazarus in January of 2021, studies show that children who spend just one hour outdoors each day can reduce their risk of developing myopia [nearsightedness] by over 14%..being outdoors and focusing on objects in the distance gives your eye muscles a chance to relax-especially after hours of staring at the screen or learning in the classroom.”
Ok, here’s another thing to think about when it comes to gardening. If you’re a teacher, you can probably think of that one kid that isn’t very good at much. Maybe this child gets in trouble often, or it seems like they can never get things just right…if you give them a seed, some soil, water and give those things some light. You’re going to set that student up for success.
Maybe growing this plant is the “only thing going right’ in their life. Maybe it’s the only thing they feel in control of because their parents are getting divorce, their dog died, they don’t have any food in the cupboard until the 21st of the month, and they missed the bus this morning. But this plant, this one right in front of them is the one thing they got right today. It’s the one thing that isn’t leaving them. It is the one thing they have control over, because it’s just some water, just some soil. It’s just a seed.
Matthew 17: 20-21 says, He [Jesus] replied “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
That seed just may move mountains for the students in your public school. That gardening program may be just what you need to get kids to grasp on to what they are learning in all of the classrooms. Maybe it’s just what those students need for their health and well being and yours too. Maybe that seed is just what the students need to not make life impossible for them. For these reasons, I am confident in saying gardening classes for public schools should be required.
If you have had personal experience with how gardening classes have affected you or your student please comment. I’d love for others to learn how gardening classes could be incorporated to benefit public schools. If you’d like to share about memorable learning activities you have had in school please comment that as well. I’d love to hear what types of things you remember for school so I may become a better instructor. If you’d like to see more posts like these please be sure to sign up for the “Dirty Fingernail Club” where we get into topics related to simple family living, gardening, beekeeping, tips for raising a family on a budget, do it yourself projects, cooking, raising livestock, event planning as well as highlighting young entrepreneurs. Follow along with our school gardening journey here. Until next time, I am cheering you on!