Using a Garden as a Classroom

By Branden Willman-Kozimor
September 2008

As schools embark on a new academic year, I'd like to reflect on the history of using food--especially growing food with children--as a springboard for teaching nutrition, as well as traditional subjects and life lessons. With food prices rising to record levels, frequent reports of national food recalls due to food-borne diseases, and worry about the distances our food travels, a classroom curriculum focused on where our food comes from is overdue. For the past two summers PEEC has been using this model with its Kids Gardening Program. This model could be used throughout the school year by all teachers interested in expanding their classroom to the outdoors.

The ideology behind garden-based education can be traced back to the writings of 17th-century philosophers such as John Amos Comenius, who was an advocate of universal, practical, and innovative learning. He wrote, "A school garden should be connected with every school, where children can have the opportunity for leisurely gazing upon trees, flowers and herbs, and are taught to appreciate them." The first records of school gardens occur in early 18th-century Europe and Australia, then later in the century in the United States.

The first school garden in the United States was established in Massachusetts in the mid-1890s and had become a national movement by 1918 with every state in America having at least one school garden. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed, "Every one who creates or cultivates a garden helps, and helps greatly, to solve the problem of the feeding of the nations." As a result, over one million students helped provide food during the war effort. Again during World War II, students helped grow food in victory gardens, but the effort declined by the end of the war.

It wasn't until the mid-1960s with America's "war on poverty" and the birth of the environmental movement that gardens began to show up again in public schools. However, the movement once again lost momentum during the conservative years of the 1980's. In 1993, the American Horticultural Society held a symposium called "Children, Plants, and Gardens: Educational Opportunities," which helped bring garden-based education back to local, state, and national agendas. Though there is no official estimate of how may school gardens exist in the U.S. today, school garden programs may have reached record numbers in this country.

Why have school garden programs gained popularity with teachers since the 1990's? First, gardens help children learn to eat healthfully. According to a 2003 report by the United States General Accounting Office, 15% of school-aged children in the United States are overweight. Coming up with engaging methods of teaching children to eat healthfully has become a priority for many educators and politicians. Second, students gain an understanding of how they are personally connected with their community and the environment when they participate in garden-based learning. Third, studies show that due to the hands-on nature of such activities, students have a deeper understanding of academic subjects when linked to a school garden or other place-based education tool. Finally, lessons based in the outdoors are more engaging for the student and more fun to teach, creating an overall pleasant environment to teach and learn.

There are may ways to connect traditional curriculum to garden learning including geography of where different foods originate, math and planning skills, life science, creative writing, and art, to name a few. The life lessons that students gain when engaged in place-based learning are numerous; problem-solving skills; seeing connections within a larger system; responsibility for nurturing of seeds as they grow into useful or beautiful plants; long-range perspective of patiently waiting for something to grow; pleasure of eating something (even vegetables!) that they have grown from a seed; a deeper understanding of what types of food prosper in the local environment; and a deeper connection to the community food system.

For teachers and parents wishing to learn more about how they can use the garden as a tool for teaching their students and children, please contact PEEC at our Web site,


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