This op-ed first published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle Agriculture Forum.
For our students and our communities, school gardens can offer more than meets the eye. Well beyond teaching gardening skills, these spaces can develop knowledge in traditional subjects like math and science in a hands-on and project-based learning environment. A garden can also give students a peaceful, quiet space to think and write. And socially, these spaces are important for students, teachers, and families — inviting the whole community allows the benefits to be enjoyed by all.
The benefits of having a school garden are extensive and widely studied, and I have seen the benefits firsthand as a FoodCorps service member. However, the most important reward my students have gained is the confidence to try new things. In the fall our third graders planted radish seeds, and when I saw the beautiful radishes that grew, I had to pick them and show the class! The children’s excitement when they learned the radishes came from the seeds they planted reminded me of why I applied to serve with FoodCorps. The entire class tried the radishes because students felt the accomplishment of growing their own food! Some students said they didn’t like radishes, but wanted to try them because they grew them.
While the benefits of school gardens are seen in beautiful, fresh food in the cafeteria, there are even more positive attributes than we may think. When I was tasked with building a new raised bed for Alanson Public School’s garden, I asked a middle school teacher for some extra hands, and the students helped me build the bed in just one afternoon. They took the lead on this project and built a beautiful garden bed. I hope they never stop getting excited about building and trying new things!
Additionally, garden spaces can offer mental health benefits. When our students have their hands in the soil, they can visualize how their actions bring change, all the while getting some extra serotonin (yes, science backs this up). Bringing students into the garden gives them time to step away from desks and get out their “wiggles,” but still learn about math, science and cooperation. Gardens are an uncertain learning space, a space that challenges students to let go of perfectionism. Students can learn about failures, and feel the emotions that are unique to a bad season, an aphid infestation or a frosted tomato plant. They learn why something failed and how they can try again with lessons learned from hands-on experience.
As schools integrate garden spaces in education, they should ensure that students are involved in the garden. Garden benefits mean nothing to students if the school garden is run by a volunteer or teacher, and kids never get to stick their hands in the soil. Benefits come from the hands-on experience of touching the soil, picking up a power tool, harvesting the rewards and seeing the produce they grew appear in the cafeteria line. School gardens should be curriculum-integrated so students can feel ownership over garden spaces and feel compelled to invest in garden success.
Courtney Wilber served as a FoodCorps Service Member in Groundwork’s Petoskey office during school year 2022-23.