Back to School Garden-Based Learning Resources

In many parts of the country the school year is starting back up with some significant differences from past years. Many districts are engaging students in fully remote learning, some are embracing hybrid models that mix in-person instruction with distance teaching, and others have fully opened. No matter what situation you’re in and whether you’re a teaching or an at home caregiver, there are plenty of resources available to help you tackle garden-based learning in safe and meaningful ways this fall:

  • Lessons to Grow By is a FREE four-month KidsGardening program of weekly garden-themed lessons and activities for parents teaching at home, or for educators instructing via distance learning. These fun, engaging adventures are grouped around a monthly theme, featuring three hands-on activities for kids each week with supplemental suggested reading, videos, and more. Lessons to Grow By is aimed at learners in grades 3-5, but the activities can easily be adapted for younger or older audiences. Lessons to Grow By launches August 31 and is only available by subscription (see link above to sign up and gain access to these special learn-from-home lessons)
  • Edible Education for the Home Classroom is a collection of lessons from the Edible Schoolyard that can easily be done at home. Many of their activities extend beyond the garden to the dinner plate, which means you’ll find recipes and guided reflections on mindful eating alongside germination experiments. Lessons are categorized based on central themes including imagine, create, support, learn, connect, and reflection.
  • SGSO Webinars and Virtual Gatherings will allow you to hear from experts in the field or engage in peer to peer networking through an entirely online series hosted by the School Garden Support Organization Network. The fall series kicked off yesterday with a Virtual Gathering on garden care and management during Covid-19 (you should be able to find a recording of this event, along with past webinars and virtual gatherings in the extensive SGSO Archive). Future topics include distance teaching/learning, Covid-friendly outdoor classroom infrastructure, using your school garden to support food relief, and more.
  • A Guidance Template for Gardening during Covid-19 created by the University of Minnesota Extension provides best practices for minimizing risk while working in a garden space. Originally created for community gardens, this template has sections that are most definitely applicable for schools interested in thinking critically about sanitation and safe social distancing protocols.
  • Green Schoolyards of America’s Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Page serves as a compilation of resources to help teachers and administrators creatively and realistically navigate repurposing outdoor spaces as classrooms. Many of the resources listed here are not specially focused on school gardens, because the truth is you don’t need a growing space to have an outdoor classroom or to teach outside. That being said, many of the tips and strategies recommended by Green Schoolyards of America and their working groups are relevant to folks invested in school garden programming and infrastructure.

Sunflower Surprise Story

Weeds in the Garden

Well garden friends, it has been a long week. The picture above is from the school garden I work with and as you can see, we have not been in the garden since before spring break and the weeds and grass have gotten a bit out of control. Monday we started digging in to try and tame it back before students are scheduled to arrive in a few weeks.

Since March and over the next few months, we will be sharing out a lot of ideas for how to keep your garden program going and how to keep kids learning from a distance and learning from home. I want to take a moment this week however, to add a few words of encouragement in case what really made the most sense for you this spring or continues to make the most sense for you this fall is to just take a break right now with your youth garden program. Gardening has some amazing benefits including boosting mental, physical, social, and emotional health -- and it is a wonderful hands-on educational tool. We have seen a sharp increase in interest in gardening with kids since COVID-19 hit and it is so encouraging to see folks seeking out garden spaces during these stressful times. I want to send out major accolades to those of you who have kept your garden growing to provide food for your community at this time.

That being said, after reading through our recent audience survey, I know that there are many of you out there who are physically and mentally tired from trying to keep gardens going with little to no help. There are many programs out there that have completely lost all sources of funding and you are not even sure where to look to find new resources. And most disheartening for those of us who know how important and impactful youth garden programs are for our students, there are many discovering that the garden is the first on the chopping block when school budgets shrink.   So, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that things are not all roses right now and share a little story about sunflowers.

Through the years, I have read and written hundreds of program spotlights about school garden programs, but there is one in particular that has really stuck with me. Way back in 2005 when I was working with the California School Garden Network to put together a book called Gardens for Learning, educator Mary Landau shared a story about one of her elementary school classes that decided to grow sunflowers in a 60-foot long narrow strip of ground along the school building. Without outdoor water access, the class carried water out to the plants every day for 2 months just waiting for the flowers to bloom. Getting very close to opening, the class went out one day to find that someone had cut the heads off of every one of their flowers.

So you are probably thinking right now, really? This is one of your favorite program spotlights of all times?

Fortunately the story did not end there. The sad, angry, and disappointed students decided to leave the stalks up to see what would happen to the plants. A few days later, additional flower buds begin to develop and each stalk grew four new blooms. Granted they were smaller than the originals, but their bright, sunny faces smiled down at the class nonetheless.

Mary shared that her students not only had the opportunity witness how in nature living creatures fight to survive and reproduce, they also learned an important life lesson. They learned that life is not always fair and some times bad things happen that just do not make sense, but if you don’t give up, good things can come from the bad.

I am not sure that all sunflower varieties would exhibit this kind of response (so please do not try this unless you treat it like an experiment knowing it may not work the same way for you) nor am I sharing this story to make light of what is going on in the world today – I know it feels like things are crashing in on all sides for so many right now. I recognize that many school gardeners are still not able to get back into your space and those of you who are able to return are arriving to find much beloved plants that did not survive and an up hill battle with weeds that seems unconquerable. But as we started hacking away at the grass invading our own school garden this week, this story popped into my mind from long ago and it gave me hope, so I thought I would share it in this blog in case it might bring some to you too.  The reminder that if we just keep going and doing as much as we can even if it may not feel like enough, 'sunflowers' (or whatever we plant, including the seeds we are sowing to grow healthy and happy kids) are going to bloom again in our garden, brought back some of the joy and energy to our efforts.

If you would like to read the full program spotlight about the surprise sunflowers, you can find it in Chapter 8 of Gardens for Learning: Maintaining Your School Garden  on p. 73.

Summer Photo Contest

summer photo contest

Our summer photo contest is underway! This is such a fun celebration of kids in the garden. We have four categories to enter, perfect for any type of gardener.

  • Kid Gardeners - Photos of kids gardening outdoors or indoors.
  • Kid Garden Activity or Lesson - Pressing flowers? Making seed balls? Show us a garden activity or lesson in or out of the garden.
  • Garden Photos Taken by Kids (age 10 and under) - Giant vegetables? Cool critters? Garden selfies? This is for kids behind the camera.
  • Garden Photos Taken by Kids (age 11-18) - For older kids behind the camera.

And what’s a contest without prizes?! Each of the category winners will receive a $50 gift card to Gardener’s Supply Company. We will also select 10 honorable mentions to receive a Botanical Interest seed collection.

We can’t wait to see what your kids are doing or observing in the garden. Check out the gallery of entries to get inspired! (Click on View Gallery above the entry form to see all the entries so far.)

We’ve got some great photography tips (for kids and adults) as well as a photo safari and bug hunt activities, plus a more in depth look at photographing shapes and pattens that could make this contest even more fun for the kids in your life.

Don’t delay! The summer photo contest closes August 18.

(header image, Garden toes!, submitted by Alea)