Nearly every Claremont school has a garden of some sort, even if it’s just a couple of tomato plants in pots.
In the wake of the school budget crisis, there has been a renewed focus on teaching strictly to California State standards. Some believe integrating gardens into curriculums takes away time from learning core subjects such as math and reading. When schools face these budget cuts, programs not directly related to those core classes are often the first to be removed from curriculums in an attempt to focus the limited resources on meeting state standards. While this is done with positive intentions, it diminishes ways of learning and removes essential elements of child development. Gardens and state standards are not mutually exclusive. Regardless of budget cuts, gardens are a very effective tool for holistically teaching all academic subjects, as well as all of the other things we value and want our children to know.
Numerous academic studies, articles, and experience from schools have proven that the rewards of school gardens are both tangible and intangible. The tangible ones are easier to quantify; in addition to improving test scores gardens have also been linked to increases in imagination and creativity, and better observation skills. They also change how children interact within the classroom and towards each other increasing concentration and participation, as well as reducing violence.
In addition to these tangible academic benefits, other learning objectives are met through gardens. These include small skills such as learning to cook nutritious food, healthier eating habits, and familiarity with a variety of vegetables. Additionally larger, "real-world" principles of positive land stewardship, excitement about learning, engagement in education, and the ability to make connections between academic subjects and their lives are learned. By watching plants grow in school plots, students understand first-hand that produce is not always shrink-wrapped and purchased from a supermarket. School gardens can be a medium for teaching all academic lessons: planting heirloom varieties of crops can be a lesson about culture and history, grinding flour and baking can be a vehicle for practicing math and fractions, and understanding the processes of compost and photosynthesis can be lessons in chemistry and biology. Children learn through experience. What they know, touch, and love will stick with them far longer than words they glanced at in a book. It’s about creating a completely new paradigm for children to learn in, including and extending beyond book learning and teaching for success on standardized tests.
All of this makes us ask the question, “What do we, as the community of Claremont, want our children to know?” Do we want them to spend virtually the entire school day indoors concentrating on information measured by standardized tests ? Would we prefer they experience a more comprehensive curriculum in an engaging environment? What works best to help them make connections between new knowledge and their lives?
Most Claremont schools are already on the path to providing comprehensive curriculum. Most schools have gardens. All schools have kitchens, cafeterias, and mealtimes. All schools have children. Although these things usually exist separately, they are intimately related. Uniting gardens and classrooms fundamentally changes the values we teach and instill in children. Children learn best through participation and hands-on education, and schools should be beautiful, engaging learning environments that support that. In facing these budget crises and continuing to reevaluate how we structure schools, gardens must be considered essential elements for learning.
Katie Tenneson and Weston Westenborg
Demystifying Sustainability is a project of Sustainable Claremont