Walking the halls of Ypsilanti Community Middle School, students look out the window at a courtyard. In early spring, there doesn’t seem to be much happening there, but as the weather warms, this courtyard becomes a vibrant outdoor classroom.
Two decades ago, it would have been surprising to see a whole classroom of kids out planting seeds or harvesting tomatoes, but today the trend of gardens in schools is exploding across the country, and Ypsilanti is no exception. Every school in the Ypsilanti Community Schools system has an on-site garden, as does each branch of the Ypsilanti District Library.
“Gardens are an opportunity for students to get hands-on learning experience,” says Jen Sopoci, School Garden Coordinator for the Ypsilanti Community Schools. “There are countless ways to use it in the curriculum. Science is the biggest tie in–we use the gardens to study earth science, soil science, and water science. But teachers are able to tie in math for calculating soil volume and seed spacing, language arts in learning vocabulary, and art projects like making signs for the garden beds.”
Ethan Lowenstein is an EMU Professor who leads the SEMIS coalition, a group that trains teachers to use experiential education in their classrooms.
“I think the research is really clear that when you make learning authentic to students–when learning is linked to something meaningful that has applications in the real world–you see academic gains,” Lowenstein said. “What that means for the teacher is that they have to analyze the potential to use the garden to reach academic goals. So if you’re looking for literacy, younger students might be reading seed packets and labeling beds, while older students are cooking and reading recipes. A lot of classes also do journaling.”
Lowenstein noted that in the high school, some of the garden clubs maintain rain gardens. The gardens are the focus of a six-week curriculum where students do research and solve real problems.
“Students are looking at water flow, and what areas are getting flooded, and then designing and planting rain gardens in collaboration with the Washtenaw County Water Resources commission office. They did a rain garden tour to see other examples and decided what to do in their own gardens,” he said.
Sopoci also observed that going outdoors can have a positive impact on student behavior. She gave an example of preschoolers at Ford Early Learning Center, who visited the garden with clipboards to draw pictures of the signs of spring. “These kids who are usually so energetic sat there and worked intently and quietly,” she noted. “They loved having the freedom to look around and find something that interested them.”
Lowenstein also connected outdoor education to social and emotional skills. “Getting into nature supports sensory integration, and helps kids learn emotional regulation. That might not look like it’s academic on the surface, but it builds really important skills that help students succeed.”
Studies have shown that students that participate in school garden programs improve academically because of the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning and spend time outside. But garden programs have seen more benefits, as growing and learning about food helps students develop healthy eating habits.
The Library’s gardens incorporate nutrition and healthy eating into many of our programs, such as cooking classes for teens and tweens. “We designed it as a salsa garden,” said Molly Beedon, who runs garden programs at YDL-Whittaker. “We chose vegetables that went well together and that could be eaten either raw or cooked, which gives us a lot of options.”
The YDL-Whittaker garden will expand this year by adding two new raised beds, thanks to two grants totaling $2,000. The other two libraries have had active vegetable gardens for years, and YDL-Michigan also hosts a pollinator garden featuring bee and butterfly-friendly plants. Garden to Table programs will be held after lunch at both the YDL-Whittaker and YDL-Michigan locations.
If anyone truly understands the value of educational gardens, it’s the students who learn there. Estabrook fourth grader Axel Raul Flores says, “Garden club is awesome! We get to be outside and make our school look nice by planting things.”