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Garden Stories: Advocating for Garden-Based Learning

A greenhouse in a field, with bare trees and a blue sky.“Gardening covers a lot of bases when it comes to student needs” says Kris Johnson, “Academic needs, social needs, emotional needs. It’s not just ‘ok we’re going to learn about plants,’ it’s not just nuts and bolts—the physical environment of the garden can make kids feel good. It can be relaxing and it can be empowering. Kids can plant something and feel a sense of pride and self-esteem. They’re just so many different layers of engagement with gardens.”

Kris is the Program Coordinator for Applied Learning at the Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD) which was awarded a Budding Botanist Grant in early 2021. Located in Indianapolis, ISD serves approximately 350 students in Pre-K through 12th grade who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing. The school has several garden spaces including perennial pollinator beds, a courtyard for production-oriented growing projects, an indoor agricultural/garden classroom, and a large greenhouse they're hoping to refurbish with their grant funds.

Current garden programming at ISD was a long time in the making. “We were on again off again for a while as a result of staff turnover and curriculum shifting away and back,” notes Kris, citing some of the common hurdles for many school garden programs. “But six years ago there was a big push by staff to develop gardens into an official component of the curriculum as opposed to something supplemental. We wanted a schoolwide program, but teachers are always stretched so thin—they can’t do everything on their own.” 

The school administration listened to its teachers and decided to dedicate a new position to garden-based initiatives. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time” beams Kris. “I have a background in science and worked in my university’s greenhouse. And now I get to be here all year taking care of the gardens!”

The creation of the Program Coordinator position was a huge tipping point that allowed the ISD staff to turn their vision into action. “Our gardens are now part of our curriculum” shares Kris. “We have a middle school class that all students take in 6th or 7th grade called Exploring Agriculture and a high school level landscaping class that’s more project based. The students in these classes are focused on building specific skill sets as part of a vocational education program, getting a feel for future careers in horticulture or agriculture.” Drop-in garden-based  classes also exist for younger students. According to Kris, these opportunities are more focused about getting outside, enjoying nature, physical activity, and teamwork. 

Kris explains that there were a number of factors motivating teachers to advocate for integrated garden-based learning. On an academic level, teachers were interested in providing students with “more opportunities for nature education and science education outside of the classroom.” Moving beyond the school day, Kris observes that “Deaf schools often become cultural centers for Deaf communities. Many alumni stay connected to the school because, in a way, it’s their home. We have people come back to campus all the time and we wanted to use gardens as a way to make this a nice place that people will be proud to visit.”

When reflecting on how gardening programming has evolved at ISD, Kris jumps right to the nitty gritty of garden management, sharing one of the most valuable lessons she’s learned: “Definitely don’t start too many projects all at once! In my excitement that’s something I overlooked at the beginning. You really need to think about how much work things will be and about who’s going to take care of it. Think a couple years head, think about what things might look like or how spaces will be used. Ask yourself, is this an area we want to plant permanently for aesthetics or is this an area for education, where we might want to change things up and where things might get a little messy—because sometimes things get a little messy when you’re learning and that’s perfectly OK!”