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Kelli Wessman is the creator of Garden of Learning and a true veteran garden educator. In the following essay she offers up her insight on the wonders of garden-based learning and shares the reality that creating and sustaining school gardens is not always easy, but it is worth it.

The Environment Brings Education to Life — In Vivid Color

My name is Kelli and I began my journey with eco-literacy twenty-five years ago.

I started a school-wide garden program at an elementary school in the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Placerville and continued to run the program for twenty-one years. Twenty years ago, I started my company, Garden of Learning. Working as a consultant to public and private schools, supplying Garden of Learning, a K-6 eco-literacy program directly and then later through educational catalogs. I have presented at conferences and seminars and I have worked with schools nationally and internationally from Dubai to Australia, from California to Maine. 

It has been my pleasure to have my hands in the dirt with students, parents, teachers, principals, school board members and anyone I could convince to pick up a trowel. I have seen how the inner workings of a school garden can bring success, and watched the garden-based movement enter into the hearts and minds collectively throughout the world.

I have seen students become curious, enthusiastic life-long learners. I’ve seen nature engage all of their senses in learning and spark their imagination by making academic topics leap to life. I’ve seen children wonder about things, touch things, look for answers to their questions while getting dirty and breathing fresh air. I’ve seen the environment teach our students to observe as scientists, while learning about humanity’s relationship to the earth. I’ve seen kids learn the value of effort, discipline and teamwork. And I have seen students experience the power to create something big and wonderful, and learn that private people must form a community to care for public resources.

As we know, research has found that a growing number of children are spending more time in front of a computer or television in a day than they spend outside in a week. We know this, yet we keep pushing more and more technology into our children’s lives.

Research has found that by integrating subjects into the environment; students become better problem solvers, self-directed learners, have better information recall, are better able to integrate basic science knowledge into the solutions of clinical problems and enhance interest in all subject matter. When children spend time in their school garden they are better able to focus in the classroom.

A constantly growing body of research links our intellectual, physical, and spiritual health directly to our interaction with nature. Studies have shown that children as young as five have a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms when they engage with nature. It’s a wonderful thing to watch a child who suffers from a lack of focus and disruptive tendencies in the classroom, go outside to the garden and work with focus and enthusiasm. It is as if by tending and caring for a tiny plant, they themselves are nurtured.

Studies have shown that there is a relationship between child obesity and nearby nature: the greener the neighborhood, the lower the Body Mass Index of children. Whether studying science, language or math in the garden, nutrition themes are always woven in. When students grow fruits and vegetables themselves, they are much more likely to enjoy eating them.

A school garden allows them to learn like the biological beings they are. The environment brings education to life — in vivid color.

As much as I know how successful school gardens can be I also know they can be tricky-------downright difficult.

It isn’t as easy as planting petunias. It isn’t an easy thing to do. But it is so---so---- worth doing.

With several hundred different grade level students participating in standard-based lessons each week, running a school-wide garden program can be very complex.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from running a school garden program is; the need for a system of organization. A system that gives your program directors the tools they need to answer all the questions to run their program efficiently. A system for organizing your program is as important as the water, sunshine and air will be to your plants.

Here are some of the many questions our schools face when they begin the school garden journey: Who will be in charge of organizing all this? Will teachers play a role in organizing it? Can they? Should they? Will they have the time? Will parents play a large role? Is there a way to train and direct them?

Who will see to it that the right crops are planted at the right times? Who will fix the sprinklers when they break? And they will break when 500 students go traipsing in the beds each week.

Who will get materials? Your need for materials doesn’t stop once you’ve got your shovels... It’s really just beginning. Who will be in charge of getting soil amendments, seeds and plants? What about instructional aids? Who will coordinate those? Who will call the shots when the weather doesn’t cooperate?

Who will choose the lessons? How will you see to it that good grade level academic lessons are happening, but also that the needs of a real working organic garden are being taken care of along with those academic lessons.

Who gets what space in the garden? What if everybody wants their own space? Should you have one of those old-fashioned land rushes, with teachers rushing in with their wagons to stake their homestead claims like back in the days when they opened up the Oklahoma territory?

Who will take care of scheduling? How much of an operating budget will you have? How will it be managed? Where will you get the money to run and grow your program?

A school garden program doesn’t run itself. It isn’t enough to have a great idea for lesson plans...that’s like having skin without a skeleton.

I know this sounds overwhelming, but it can be done, it is being done. Like I said, it isn’t as easy as planting petunias, it isn’t an easy thing to do… but it is so worth doing.

With proper coordination and planning, outstanding school garden programs can be developed and sustained to become a long-term part of every school.  

- By Kelli Wessman

Learn more about Kelli’s school garden program materials at www.gardenoflearningk6.com

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