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Garden-Based Learning: Engaging Students in Their Environment

From fairy gardens to garden towers, Walter Bracken STEAM Academy transformed its school grounds into a student-centered, garden-learning wonderland.
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Garden-Based Learning: Engaging Students in Their Environment (Transcript)

Roshelle: All right, go ahead and walk. Look for those organic materials. You can look on the ground, in the beds.

Students are really engaged. They're excited to learn about the gardens and the impact on the students has been amazing. It just really lets them explore and use that curiosity to learn.

Katie: We built our first garden over in first grade, taking out a space that was where people dumped furniture and we just slowly changed one area at a time each year.

Elaine: We started a couple years ago by putting in a few beds, just planting with the kids and trying to figure out gardening and working it into the curriculum. We went through the Nevada state standards and the Next Generation standards and we wrote curriculum based on that. You'll see the art teacher out there with the kids. There's math, science, there's everything. When they're working in the gardens, it's all tied to our standards.

Roshelle: We want to be able to feed our worms and we want to be able to add to our compost.

We typically do a garden lesson at least two to three times a month. Part of our science curriculum is looking at plants and nature, so we thought it was a great asset for students to learn how they can reuse scraps and soil and worms, to help make our soil better.

Malachi: An organic thing is something that humans eat and then they throw away, but they can actually put it in a compost or in the dirt. I think this is more important than math and science, because you're helping nature grow.

Katie: Initially, I just wanted my students to know that vegetables don't come from the grocery store. They come from the soil, from the ground, they grow and it's a process. To do a lesson once in a classroom with a lima bean in the window is not enough.

Student: We're checking if the worms, they pooped or they peed. We check it by this. We need the pee so we can water our flowers and make them grow more.

Roshelle: Students are actually in the gardens every day, even if it's only briefly. So sometimes it's something, just a ten minute activity where they're maintaining.

Alana: I check to see if the soil is moist by dipping my finger in. The last thing I have to do is turn the compost bins around. I've got to see if there's any problems, and if there is, I check off yes and then write it down here. I think one day, maybe I'll have a garden of my own.

Elaine: It might look like they're running around, but they're really not. They have very specific jobs, and they're planting and they're harvesting and they're checking for bugs and they're collecting seeds. They're planning farmer's markets so that we can sell the produce and make money to fund the gardens. The enthusiasm for learning is just incredible. You can start by planting a few seeds in a pot, the kids, they'll respond.

Roshelle: Come on under the tree.

Student: Can I put this in?

Roshelle: Is it organic?

Student: Yeah.

Katie: They get to go outside and teach lessons in a different way than what they would have, had they been inside their classroom. There's a purpose for being outside and in the garden.

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Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, a Title I elementary magnet school in urban Las Vegas, Nevada, transformed 32,000 square feet of dry grass into student-centered learning gardens.

There are over 30 grade-specific garden beds throughout the school. Each grade has a distinct role:

  • First-grade students plant seeds.
  • Second-grade students get rid of harmful bugs.
  • Third-grade students compost.
  • Fourth-grade students run the farmers’ market.
  • Fifth-grade students are in charge of recycling.
The garden with large planted areas with trees and shrubs and benches, parallel to the outdoor covered corridor leading into the classrooms

Through the Farm-preneuer Program, which is connected to Walter Bracken’s STEAM curriculum, fourth-grade students learn how to create a business from their vegetable gardens. Within a 12-week period of running the farmers’ market, they learn how to write a business plan, create profit-and-loss sheets, and run advertising campaigns.

"Initially, I just wanted my students to know that vegetables don't come from the grocery store," says Katie Decker, Walter Bracken's principal. “They come from the soil, from the ground, they grow, and it's a process. We built our first garden over in first grade, taking out a space where people dumped furniture, and we just slowly changed one area at a time each year."

How It's Done

Step 1: Gain Teacher Buy-In

"You have to have a vision and purpose that people are going to buy into," says Anna Hurst, Walter Bracken's assistant principal.

To gain teacher buy-in, Decker and Hurst recommend:

  • You need a dream. Visiting schools that have successfully implemented a garden program will help you to visualize that dream.
  • Describe your vision to teachers using research and mentioning community partners who will support them.
  • Understand that it takes time.

Step 2: Create a Garden Team

Walter Bracken STEAM Academy has a garden team that includes a teacher from each grade level. "The gardening team is the engine that drives the program," says Ciara Byrne, the co-CEO of Green Our Planet, a nonprofit and Walter Bracken partner that helps schools build outdoor garden programs.

Each team member has a specific role, such as events coordinator, fundraiser, and garden team leader. A garden team:

  • Runs the garden program, and shares decisions with teachers schoolwide
  • Consists of at least one teacher from each grade level
  • Could also include a parent from the PTA, as well as students at the high school level
  • Meets once a month
  • Ensures program sustainability

"When only one teacher is in charge of a program, you do not have sustainability," says Decker. With a garden team, if one teacher leaves, a replacement can be found.

Step 3: Fund Your Garden Program

To get started, Byrne recommends raising a minimum of $5,000 in order to "build a decent-sized garden, including raised beds, organic soil, proper irrigation, a shed (ideal, but not necessary), and curriculum to teach in the garden." The amount of money needed depends on the size and type of garden, whether volunteers help build it, and how much of your materials are donated.

Walter Bracken created its first garden bed for $1,000. They got some of the materials as donations or at a discounted rate, and students, staff, parents, and community volunteers did all the labor. The school staff also engineered the gardens themselves. "We start by looking at the space, and then engineer a design," says Decker. She suggests looking at other school gardens for inspiration. On Google Images, you can find a variety of ideas, from fairy gardens to circular beds and planters made with Lego bricks.

Organize Fundraisers

Walter Bracken typically raises $20,000 a year through fundraisers, such as:

  • A carnival ($2,000)
  • A color run ($2,000)
  • A movie night ($500)
  • An art auction ($500)
  • A farmers' market ($200)
  • A crowdfunding campaign ($14,466)

Partner With Donors

Walter Bracken also receives donations and grants from the Las Vegas Rotary Club and Capital One. Over the past six years, they’ve received $50,000 annually from a partnership with the Lanni Family Charitable Foundation.

When searching for donors, Decker recommends:

  • Connect with the right partner for the right job. Her school asked a tech company to help them with coding, not gardening.
  • Be specific when asking for what you need. You should have a clear vision and be able to describe how it specifically benefits your students.
  • Introduce yourself, your school, and your ask in-person, and leave them with a letter describing what you want.

"Building relationships is the key to partnerships," advises Decker. Once you have a donor, she suggests communicating with them often. Let them know about the impact they are making, and thank them. Make them feel appreciated. Have your students write them thank you notes. "Thank them on your Facebook page and website," adds Decker.

Step 4: Partner With Garden Experts

Walter Bracken partners with Green Farms. This group’s farmers:

  • Inform teachers weekly about what, when, and how to plant so that teachers can incorporate maintenance into their lessons
  • Give weekly workshops
  • Solve problems as they arise, such as fixing a stink bug infestation
  • Maintain the gardens during the summer
  • Prevent staff burnout

"You will burn out your staff if you don't provide assistance," cautions Decker. “Fundraise to build your garden account, and then as you build the art auctions and farmers’ markets, you will sustain the ability to pay for it.”

If you can't afford to hire a farming company, Byrne recommends partnering with a master gardener. Master gardeners need to volunteer 20 hours a year to maintain their status, and master gardener interns need to volunteer a minimum of 40 hours. Most state universities have cooperative extensions, which can connect you to master gardeners.

Step 5: Develop Your Garden Curriculum

Elaine Bennett, a Walter Bracken third-grade teacher, was part of a statewide team of teachers and farmers from Green Farms who developed the K-5 garden curriculum, which was organized and funded by Green Our Planet. Green Our Planet's garden curriculum includes significant portions of the Nevada State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, and they sell their curriculum by grade level at a very reasonable price. 

A paper with 3rd Grade Garden Curriculum for September and October. Lesson 1 - Soil Components; Lesson 2 - Sand, Silt, Clay Oh My!; Lesson 3 - Engineering a Better Soil; Lesson 4 - Plant Growth and Soil Type; Lesson 5 - Soil Water Absorption; Overview

This curriculum was modeled after Walter Bracken's existing garden curriculum, which Bennett also helped develop. The school created a garden committee, which included a teacher from each grade level. They planned before school, after school, and during their grade-level professional learning community. "Each grade level looked at the curriculum and created lessons which they could use in the gardens," explains Bennett. “They then brought them back to the committee to collaborate and plan across grade levels.”

When developing your curriculum, Bennett advises:

  • Start with the content that your students need to learn and the teaching resources that you have available.
  • Review existing curriculum and adapt it to your needs.
  • Meet by grade levels, and start creating one lesson at a time.
  • Search the internet for example garden lessons.
  • Discuss issues with your team as they occur, and problem solve as a group.
  • Ask for help from someone who knows about gardening. (Initially, a Walter Bracken parent helped them get started.)

Whether you're working with a parent, a master gardener, or a farmer, these are some helpful questions to ask:

  • What could be planted and when?
  • How does the climate impact planting?
  • What containers work best?
  • What watering schedules should you follow?
  • What soil should you use?
  • When and how should you harvest?
  • How do you collect seeds?
  • How do you manage insect and pest control?

Step 6: Incorporate the Garden Into Your Lessons

Every grade level is responsible for maintaining its own garden. Walter Bracken teachers use "What's growing in the garden" sheets (PDF) to help students learn more about the plants under their care. "We typically do a garden lesson at least two to three times a month," says Roshelle Barrow, a Walter Bracken third-grade teacher. "But students are in the gardens every day. Sometimes it's just a ten-minute activity where they're maintaining it.”

Alana standing in the garden holding a clipboard

"I check to see if the soil is moist by dipping my finger in. The last thing I have to do is turn the compost bins around," explains Alana, a Walter Bracken third-grade student. Each student gets a garden checklist (PDF). It specifies the garden bed where they work and includes a space for their name, the date, and assigned maintenance activities. "I get to see if there are any problems, and if there are, I check off yes, and then write them down. I think one day I may have a garden of my own," adds Alana.


Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Owen Carver's picture
Owen Carver
Tech Entrepreneur and Social Business Expert

I just want to say that Green Our Planet and their school garden program as well as Walter Bracken's staff and teachers are extraordinary. The Las Vegas school garden movement is growing and is demonstrating how powerful school gardens can be as a catalyst for community change along with parent & student engagement. There's nothing more important to a city than its food system, and school gardens are our best way to food security and resiliency in our communities. My company has been donating money and volunteering with school gardens and have really benefited from the relationship and are excited to help this concept spread throughout our country so every school can have an outdoor classroom garden.

brittanyanorton's picture

This is a great idea for schools. It allows the students to see how important it is to take care of the earth because it is essential to living. It also gives the students responsibility. This is a great way to get students involved and getting them more interested in doing good deeds in the future.

Cindy in Fourth's picture
Cindy in Fourth
I'm a fourth grade teacher in California

Do you think it's better to have raised beds hidden from the street, or out front where all can see? I would like to expand our garden. We have had some vandalism having our growing boxes in the back of the school. I'm wondering if there's any stats on whether out front is better.

Debby2019's picture

I have been interested in this for awhile, however when I learned that the initial start-up cost was anywhere from $1,000 - $5,000 it bummed me out. Even though we live in a farming area, many of our students don't leave the town limits, so this would be a great experience. We have an Agricultural Extension Office in our area which could probably help us out and a local TV station has an expert gardener on their news show once a week, so I'm sure I could find lots of help. Need to do more research on the financial aspect.

Mr.Cope's picture

Like Debby2019, I too have wanted to do a project like this at my school. Also, like she posted, the initial startup is very intimidating. It is great to see the success of your school. Seeing how you've not only gotten it going, but seeing the way it is thriving is a great motivator. It gives me hope that my dream is possible. Your information will really help my research on the subject. Thanks for posting.

Mitzi Hall's picture

Love, love, love this idea! Teaches students so many things as well as putting them in touch with our natural world!

Jodi Deppen's picture

Our small elementary school has a garden area where each grade has a raised garden box. I am a preschool teacher and love to garden. Last year we received a Preschool to Farm grant and were able have different presenters come into the room and share about what they raise or grow. The students were able to learn about growing wheat, flowers and vegetables, raising chickens, goats, and sheep. We also had presenters come with equipment that showed the students how they cut and bale hay. All of this was very exciting for the students.
Although all of these things are happening in our small valley, in Northern California, the preschool students still thought most things came from the store. Last month we harvested lettuce to use in the school cafeteria. Currently we have sunflowers and pumpkins growing in our box. When school resumes in the fall they will be able to harvest them. Last week we released ladybugs which the children were thrilled with.
This article has some great ideas that I will be sharing with my colleagues on using the garden area with more of their curriculum.

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