By. Jill Keating Herbst, Professional Development and Outreach Manager for the Schoolyards Program at Common Ground High School (New Haven, Connecticut)
It is a sunny, warm April morning and spring has finally sprung! The gardens are waking, the forest is alive with birds and buds, and the Common Ground campus is full of people who have gathered to learn, collaborate, and connect to the natural world. Nearly 200 high school students are busy with their studies, young children visit with caretakers for an early introduction to the forest, second graders from New Haven’s Hill Central School are exploring the wildlife of the wetland. And, a small group of eager educators arrive for a workshop called Investigations in the Garden.
We meet, greet, bask in the fantastic weather, and then gather in the farmhouse to talk over our shared goals.
“We have this garden and no one uses it—I just don’t know where to start.”
“I need some more tricks for my educator toolbox as I open up our gardens.”
“I need to convince the rest of the staff to join me! I love getting my kids outside.”
We dive into a brainstorm to define inquiry – child-directed, asking questions, exploring – document our collective hopes for outdoor learning – connect kids to nature, instill a sense of stewardship, teach real science – and create a comprehensive list of our challenges in this work – time, support, resources. Then, we get outside!
Common Ground High School, Urban Farm, and Environmental Education Center has been a place for environmental learning for over 20 years. Children and families connect to the site beneath West Rock in New Haven, Connecticut through the environmentally themed charter high school, amazing summer camp, hundreds of field trips, weekend family programs, and a vibrant and productive urban farm. Five years ago – in response to high demand from schools – we began the School Garden Resource Center. This program has provided significant support to 18 schoolyard learning programs in New Haven and additional support to gardens statewide through workshops and consultation. As the work of the School Garden Resource Center grows and evolves, we see that the heart of successful school garden programs is confident school leaders who feel well prepared to organize their own school community around outdoor learning. We help build these leaders through training, consultation, and supporting a growing network of others doing the same work. The workshops we offer look different each time, as we work hard to respond to the needs and experiences of all who join us – educators, parents, students, community members, and more.
The participants in the Investigations workshop begin their time in the garden with a “special places” activity. I ask everyone to find their own place in the garden where they will sit and observe for five minutes. In a program I teach at Common Ground, my 5-7 year old students each have their own special place that they visit for a few minutes each week; it could be a fort, a stump, or a leaf pile. In recent years, inspired by David Sobel’s 7 principles of children’s play from Children and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, I have incorporated elements of play into my teaching and nearly all of my teacher workshops. Children connect to their special place over time, making deeper observations and developing ownership.
In our Investigations workshop, we debrief the “special places” activity as a way to begin observing and asking questions. One teacher notes after sitting just outside the garden fence observing the worm bin and compost pile that her fifth grade students would love this but they would need more time. Time to “make less obvious observations and think outside the box about what they were seeing.” This is common. Teachers feel they have time to go outside once in a while, maybe conduct a single 30-minute lesson, but worry when we talk of going deeper into student connection to outdoor spaces. How can I make the time to do this the way I want?
We do two more exploration activities: one collecting and describing different items found in the spring garden and a second on developing questions based on our observations.
Afterward, we gather under the peach tree to further discuss how it felt doing each activity and if these could work in everyone’s classrooms. The conversation begins with talk of bugs, butterflies, compost, and seedlings but soon shifts toward concerns over boundaries, tools, supervision, support, and space.
What I have learned teaching teachers is that while everyone loves a fun new lesson to bring home, it is not just about curriculum. The crux of this work lies in creating systems to support effective outdoor learning, rallying the school community in the care of the garden, and sometimes convincing others of the immense value in taking kids outside during the school day. It is about building routines and fostering a culture within schools so teachers can focus on teaching and kids can safely learn outside in all seasons.
In surveys that we have done with teachers at our partner schools, some teachers report a concern over what and how to teach content outdoors but most talk about safety of the garden space, lack of shade or seating, and not having adequate tools for students. Some worry that they do not garden, even though they know their life science curriculum and have taught soil lessons on cups in the classroom for years. Others report that they feel they will be judged if the class appears out of control and that they need to always justify being outside. We spend time tackling these obstacles, creating collective solutions, and sharing our stories.
Overwhelmingly, teachers report that the best part of our outdoor learning workshops is learning from others; hearing those success stories and challenges from other school communities. Knowing that they are not alone.
They tell us that they also appreciate the time to think and collaborate with their team so that they leave with a solid next step, a nugget they can implement right away and some clear goals to share with the greater school community.
Gardens are ripe for teaching almost anything: life cycles, insects, plant parts, and nutrition are all obvious but it is also a venue to teach poetry, carpentry, and geometry. It is a place where students develop skills and practices by working together, solving problems, making observations, and witnessing changes over time. Skills students develop through their garden experience help them grow into active thinkers and members of a community.
Overcoming challenges of maintaining a garden program in a school often brings teachers a renewed excitement and ownership for their work. The schoolyard becomes so much bigger than just a place to teach about soil and seeds; it is a sunny, breezy, green extension of the school building that requires love and care throughout the year. I have been in gardens while parents, young children, and administrators all worked together to dig up stubborn invasive shrubs and haul wheelbarrows of mulch. Sometimes, a simple strategy or activity gleaned at a workshop with others can make all the difference in a garden coordinator getting the whole school organized for a planting day or harvest festival.
The schoolyard is also a place to de-escalate and escape stresses of the classroom. A new turn in our work is beginning to better understand how teachers and students use outdoor learning spaces to refocus students, manage challenging behaviors, and support trauma-informed care. In our workshops, we address this as another role of the school gardens and participants affirm that they see the garden as a critical tool in supporting students’ emotional health. The schoolyard is a classroom for the whole child.
After a busy morning in the forest and the garden, our Investigations workshop teachers join in with the second graders doing a wetland investigation, chatting with students and teachers about what they have found and expressing how impressed they are with the engagement and attention of the students.
Then we wrap up together. I ask them all what their next steps are as they go back to school: “I am going to build a compost bin with my students.” “I am going to call a meeting with the whole staff to make a plan.” “I need to get sets of tools for my students.”
There is no formula for a perfect school garden program, and no single way to teach outside in a schoolyard. The best programs all look different but the common factor is a group of committed school leaders – teachers, parents, administrators, students, or community members – who are determined to provide rich outdoor learning experiences without leaving campus. Our work is to support the growth of these leaders, shine a light on their hard work, and be a friendly face to offer new skills, tools, and knowledge to grow a culture of outdoor learning in our local schools.
About the Author
Jill Keating Herbst is the Professional Development and Outreach Manager for the Schoolyards Program at Common Ground High School, Urban Farm, and Environmental Education Center. She has been teaching children and adults at Common Ground for the past seven years and was part of the team who developed the School Garden Resource Center in 2012. Before joining Common Ground, she taught public elementary and middle school and for several environmental and farm education centers. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Florida and M.Ed. in Elementary Science Education from Antioch University New England. When not leading workshops or teaching young people, she spends her time chasing her own very young children.