School gardens—and efforts to connect gardening to K–12 learning—are burgeoning. Children's gardens—green spaces that keep in mind the way children play and explore an outdoor space—have been one of the biggest recent trends in gardening (American Horticultural Society, n.d.).
Progressive educators have long promoted gardening as an opportunity to connect knowledge about plants, animals, and ecosystems with personal experience—and as a natural way for students to develop an understanding of science. As early as 1900, John Dewey's lab school at the University of Chicago featured a garden maintained by the school community (Dewey, 1938).
In addition to generating inquiry about nature, gardens help teachers authentically integrate botanical knowledge and broader science concepts into the school day. Blair (2009) writes that school gardens most frequently center on science achievement, nutrition knowledge, health and nutrition, environmental education, and self-esteem.
Although the relationships among science, math, and gardens are readily apparent, gardening isn't a boon for these two disciplines only. Think of the role that garden exploration might play in strengthening literacy. Gardening can inspire students to read, discover, research, write, and inform themselves and fellow gardeners.
At Saint Michael's College in Vermont, I collaborated with a biology professor and our college grounds crew to build a "teaching garden." This
outdoor laboratory includes several areas that link gardens and learning, including
Saint Michael's teaching gardens also feature the
Arboretum, a website with information about 18 species of trees at Saint Michael's. The website also includes a
tour of the campus with a stop at each species of tree and hands-on learning activities for children. My preservice teaching students, local teachers with whom I work, and local K–12 students all use the teaching gardens to enhance learning about literature and plant biology.
Let's consider three ways teachers can use authentic student activity in gardens to enrich literacy—and how literacy meshes with student experiences in a garden.
Choose Books with Gardening as a Key Element
Although not all schools have gardens, all students can learn literary elements and biological content through exemplary children's books that feature plants and gardening. Teachers and librarians might create text sets—groups of books and other texts that encourage students to explore gardening—for individuals, small groups, or whole classes. A well-selected text set offers opportunities to both discuss literary elements—plot, setting, character development, details, structure, and writer's craft—and learn the implicit biological story that is at the heart of books featuring gardens (Bang-Jensen & Lubkowitz, 2012).
For example, The Wind's Garden by Bethany Roberts (Henry Holt, 2001) invites early elementary-age readers to compare a cultivated garden and a meadow and shows the role of the wind in plant growth. Students readily grasp the concepts of pollinators and species diversity through effective literary devices such as point of view, narration, and a compare-and-contrast structure.
To understand the theme of making the world a better place in Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (Viking, 1982), students must understand seed dispersal. The main character returns to her hometown toward the end of her life and scatters lupine seeds on open fields to spread beauty throughout the town.
In both these books, the literary elements and biological concepts presented in the text work together to present plant-related content and a rich, satisfying reading experience that enables readers to develop their knowledge about gardening. When such readings are paired with experiences in a school garden, readers make text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections that broaden and deepen their schema about both literature and gardening (Harvey & Goudvis, 2007).
Teach Nonfiction Features
Reading nonfiction on garden-related topics invites students to learn about typical ways authors structure texts—such as in sequence or through cause and effect—and features that help convey information in nonfiction—such as captions, labels, and sidebars.
If students grow plants in their school garden, teachers might even set up a unit so that students' immersion in a text or unit parallels a plant life cycle. For example, students could read about how seeds open and shoots emerge as they watch their seeds sprout. Firsthand experiences in botany lead naturally to inquiry; when blossoms emerge, when plants grow differently under different conditions, or when plants don't thrive, students will want to know why.
Planning for or learning about gardens requires research into soil preparation, equipment, climate zones, and light patterns. As learners record, track, and describe plant growth, life cycles, and harvest yields, they'll use diagrams, charts, and sequential directions. These forms of communicating information align with the increased focus on reading and writing informational text found in the common core state standards.
When creating text sets, teachers might gather nonfiction mentor texts that will help students learn to write well themselves. Books such as Watch it Grow by Ivan Bulloch, Duane James, and Daniel Pangbourne (Two-Can, 2000) and Nature in the Neighborhood by Gordon Morrison (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) provide appealing and accurate models of nonfiction for elementary students who hope to communicate their own new knowledge about gardening.
Create Garden Signs
One striking pattern emerging in school and community gardens is that parents and community members become highly involved in conceiving, planting, and maintaining gardens (American Horticultural Society, n.d.). Often, the entire community—multiple classes at different grade levels, students' families, and school neighbors or enthusiastic citizens—participates.
The varying needs and interests of this broad group provide an impetus for students to find ways to share with a diverse group their garden's purpose, the content they've learned about plants, and important information or directions. Studying signage as a genre enables students to use both verbal text (words) and visual text (symbols or icons) to explain garden phenomena and to make their messages accessible to a range of readers.
Interpretive signs explain a garden's purpose, identify and describe plants, and try to meet visitors' needs. Wayfaring signs, such as "Herb Garden Ahead," show visitors and workers where to walk, the location of plant beds, and where to find gardening equipment (National Association for Interpretation, 2006). Other possibilities include plant identification signs, exhibit area titles and maps, posted questions to engage visitors, and brochures presenting general information.
Duke, Caughlan, Juzwik, and Martin (2012) emphasize that reading and writing should mirror real-world forms and purposes and that students should learn "genre features and their functions." During a study of sign making, teachers should help students consider how signs direct, provide information, and display certain types of text (or symbols) to convey specific information. They might identify, describe, categorize, and analyze signs in their own schools for practice.
I recently worked with 3rd graders in Vermont as they studied both directional (wayfaring) and interpretive signage and made signs for their garden. They created signs that revealed their successful efforts to apply garden knowledge, graphic design, and awareness of audience to convey an effective message (see fig. 1).
Figure 1. 3rd Graders' Signs for Their School Garden
Photos courtesy of St. Michael's College
School gardens have clear potential to boost literacy and learning, and they connect with many areas of the elementary curriculum. Creating text sets, studying nonfiction features, and designing effective signs for school gardens are ways for that potential to take root.
Children's Books Rooted in Gardening
These books feature key concepts (listed in parentheses) connected to gardening or literacy.
Grow: A Novel in Verse by Juanita Havill. Illustrated by Stanislawa Kodman. (2008). Atlanta: Peachtree. (Explores urban gardening.)
Jack's Garden by Henry Cole. (1995). New York: Harper Trophy. (Describes the life cycle of a garden; exemplifies cumulative text patterns.)
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. (1982). New York: Puffin. (Explains seed dispersal; features literary theme.)
Nature in the Neighborhood by Gordon Morrison. (2004). New York: Houghton Mifflin. (Includes maps, diagrams, captions, thumbnails, embedded glossary terms.)
Wanda's Roses by Pat Brisson. (1994). Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press. (Explores urban gardening.)
Watch It Grow by Ian Bulloch, Diane James, and Daniel Pangbourne. (2000). Chanhassen, MN: Two-Can Publishing. (Provides photographs, index, and table of contents.)
The Wind's Garden by Bethany Roberts. Illustrated by Melanie Hope Greenberg. (2001). New York: Henry Holt. (Describes plant life cycle, biodiversity; features comparative text structure.)
The Word Garden at Saint Michael's College
Video courtesy of Saint Michael's College
American Horticultural Society. (n.d.). Youth Gardening Home Page. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from
Bang-Jensen, V., & Lubkowitz, M. (2012, March). The wind's garden. Books in Bloom [Online column]. South Burlington, VT: National Gardening Association. Retrieved from
Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden: An evaluative review of the benefits of school gardening.
The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(2), 15–38. doi: 10.3200/JOEE.40.2.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.
Duke, N., Caughlan, S., Juzwik, M., & Martin, N. (2012). Teaching genre with a purpose.
Educational Leadership, 69(6), 34–39.
Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
National Association for Interpretation. (2006). Definitions project. Fort Collins, CO: Author. Retrieved from
Valerie Bang-Jensen is associate professor of education at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont. With Mark Lubkowitz, associate professor of biology at Saint Michael's, she writes a column on school gardening for the
National Gardening Association's website.
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