Whether it’s seeds sown in paper cups on a classroom windowsill, plants nestled in boxes atop an asphalt yard, or a vegetable-producing school garden, partaking in the growing process provides a bounty of benefits for students and a wealth of teaching opportunities. In addition to generating curiosity and wonder, gardening projects can help kids forge a connection to nature, inspire exploration of the local ecology and broader environmental issues, and encourage a sense of personal responsibility and accomplishment.
These projects can also be fruitful focal points for meeting standards across the curriculum and grade levels, serving as subject matter for creative writing, journaling, and art projects and science lessons on plant physiology and reproduction, ecology, animal behavior, and health and nutrition. Exercises from sorting seeds to measuring to graphing growth will reinforce math concepts, while the cooperative skills needed for these activities and the opportunities for discussion on agriculture and foods around the world, will support the social studies curriculum.
Introduce the glories of gardening to youngsters with a selection of share-aloud or read-alone titles that blend colorful illustrations with compelling writing. Included here are lively looks at school and community gardens, a bouquet of offerings about growing things, and a crop of titles that can be used to broaden the topic to global agriculture and food issues. Perfect for use in the classroom, these volumes will also be valuable to other organizations that support green-thumb projects for kids, including libraries, museums, and camps.
School and Community Gardens
George Ancona’s It’s Our Garden (Candlewick, 2013; Gr 1-4) reveals the workings—and wonders—of a successful elementary school garden in Sante Fe, NM. From selecting and planting seeds, to daily chores and sampling the fruits of their labors at harvest time, the students work closely with teachers and volunteers to care for, explore, learn from, and wholeheartedly enjoy the garden. The well-written text and crisp photos detail the growing process, different types of produce, eco-friendly cultivation methods (e.g., water is collected in a cistern and distributed by a solar-powered pump), animal visitors, and edible delights (fresh vegetables, popcorn, and more). The handsome images show students enthusiastically engaged, with hands dirty and faces smiling, revealing not only the garden’s importance to the school, but also to the entire community, as families and friends gather on weekends and in summertime to care take, cook food, and share music.
It might be Michael’s first day at a new school, but as soon as he steps into Our School Garden (Reader to Eaters, 2012; Gr 2-4), he feels right at home. Set against Christy Hale’s lush-hued paintings, Rick Swann’s poems and brief factual paragraphs introduce various aspects of this well-tended outdoor learning center. Themes of discovery, teamwork, and responsibility are nurtured throughout, as the garden helps Michael to settle in and make new friends. Topics such as victory gardens, composting, and pill bugs invite further exploration in a variety of curriculum areas. Pair the recipe for “School Garden Stone Soup” with retellings of the well-known folktale, such as Marcia Brown’s version (Scribners, 1947). Expand upon a poem such as “Harvest Day!” with studies of how different cultures celebrate this time with special foods and customs. Have your students write a story about his or her family’s Thanksgiving or harvest celebration.
Both Maya and Shakayla are excited when Ms. Garcia announces that the class will have a First Peas to the Table (Albert Whitman, 2012; Gr 1-4) contest, an idea based on a competition once held by Thomas Jefferson and his neighboring farmers. Students will study Jefferson’s gardening techniques, plant and foster seeds, and see who can produce the first bowl of shelled peas. Each girl has her own horticultural methods as well as triumphs and tragedies, and their spirited rivalry adds suspense to the story. Facts about peas and the growing cycle are clearly presented in Susan Grigsby’s text and Nicole Tadgell’s softly realistic watercolors. An afterword about Jefferson and his interest in agriculture can help direct further historical studies.
School and community gardens encourage youngsters to taste the foods they have grown, think about where their food comes from and its nutritional value, and understand the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In her lovely picture book, Robbin Gourley explains how First Lady Michelle Obama was inspired by just such rationale to initiate the First Garden (Clarion, 2011; K-Gr 5).
Planted on the White House lawn with the help of fifth-grade students from a local school in 2009, the garden contains 55 varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables (but no beets as per the president). Vibrant text and breezy watercolor paintings describe the process from clearing the land through to harvest time, underscoring gardening challenges both commonplace (weeds and destructive insects) and unique (securing a beehive to withstand the wind generated by the president’s helicopter). The bountiful yield was used to feed the First Family, tempt White House guests (recipes are appended), and help stock a local soup kitchen. Background about how the dwelling’s outdoor space has been used by young residents through the years and vegetable gardens planted in the past makes an easy segue from science to history, and a helpful list of resources is appended.
After they Plant a Little Seed (Roaring Brook, 2012; PreS-Gr 2) in their local community garden, two friends “water and wait/and wait and dream…/…and dream and wait some more” until the first tiny sprouts appear. The process continues as their plot bursts with skyward-stretching stalks, generates munch-off-the-vine veggies, and produces the makings of an autumn feast, lovingly prepared and shared by both youngsters’ families. Bonnie Christensen’s poetic text is filled with ear-pleasing rhythms and eloquent descriptive phrases (“Our garden sings with buzzing bees,/with rustling leaves and cawing crows,/with gentle rain and whirring wings”). Done in verdant shades, the bold-lined illustrations shine with realistic details and childlike exuberance.
Have your students look closely at two or more of these offerings and compare the featured gardens. Where is each garden located? What plants and wildlife are included? What happens to each garden’s harvest? Who cares for each garden and what role does it play in the community? Children can cite examples from both the narratives and illustrations. Ask students to extract details from the texts and write a proposal to your school’s principal to start a school garden, including an explanation of the project, a description of required space and materials, and a summary of the many benefits this endeavor would provide to the educational community and local neighborhood.
Listen and Learn While Garden Grows
It’s springtime, and Alice and her family are headed outdoors to sow seeds and discover the Secrets of the Garden (Knopf, 2012; Gr 1-4). Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s sparkling narrative intertwines the girl’s experiences with clearly presented information about the growing process, the critters that visit the garden to eat the plants (or prey on the animals that eat the plants), and the different food chains supported by this unique ecosystem. Priscilla Lamont’s vivacious watercolor artwork adds plenty of charm and complements the text with helpful charts, cutaways, and close-ups, while dialogue balloons (and two chatting chickens) help convey the facts.
Denise Fleming’s concise punch-packing rhymes and spectacular cross-section illustrations reveal happenings both above a garden’s surface and Under Ground (Beach Lane, 2012; PreS-Gr 2). As a youngster plants Bing cherry trees, beneath his feet busy critters travel subterranean “highways and byways./Squirm-ways and worm-ways,” “Funneling, tunneling” their way to hidden burrows. The color- and texture-splashed artwork features an assortment of surface scratchers, soil nesters, and underground dwellers (including a robin, a mole, ants, beetle grubs, yellow jackets, a garter snake, and more). Creatures are identified and briefly introduced at book’s end, along with excerpts from the illustrations that encourage readers to seek out each species in the previous pages.
Cleverly adapted from the familiar song, Mary Quattlebaum’s Jo MacDonald Had a Garden (Dawn, 2012; PreS-Gr 2) describes how the famous old farmer’s granddaughter and a friend plant (“With a dig-dig here”), tend (“And a sprinkle-sprinkle there”), and harvest (“Here a pick, there a pick”) a vegetable plot before sampling its goodies (“Everywhere a yum-yum…E-I-E-I-O.”). Laura J. Bryant’s enchanting illustrations depict the two youngsters along with the sprightly animals and insects that are part of this garden ecosystem. Back matter introduces the highlighted flora and fauna, suggests simple activities, and lists online resources.
When Nibbles and Posie, two green-thumbed guinea pigs, find caterpillars munching away in Nibbles’ Garden (Marshall Cavendish, 2012; PreS-Gr 2), they decide to keep the intruders as pets, placing them in large-size jars. When the insects go missing (observant readers will notice pupas attached to sticks and leaves), the knowledgeable Mr. Rosetti solves the mystery—lifting off the lids and explaining, “when you lose a caterpillar, you find a butterfly.” Charlotte Middleton’s lighthearted text and buoyant mixed-media artwork brim with warmth and humor. Use this story to elaborate on the process of metamorphosis and the essential role played by plants in this cycle.
All of these books focus on the community of plants and animals found in a garden. Re-create this ecosystem in your classroom by having students choose one of the highlighted animals or insects, draw a picture, and use books and/or online resources to research further. Have them compile fact sheets, or write a story about their animal and its environment. What does each critter eat? How do insects, birds, and other animals help the garden?
Farming in the City and Beyond
School gardening projects can be linked to studies of agriculture, food supply issues, and environmental concerns. Watch Me Grow! (Kids Can, 2011; K-Gr 3), a photo essay by Deborah Hodge and Brian Harris, shows youngsters that gardens can thrive in an urban setting. The possibilities are endless, from herbs in a windowsill pot, balcony containers of lettuce, and pea vines climbing up fences, to community gardens bursting with fruits and vegetables. The accessible text and handsome photos emphasize the many advantages of these endeavors—enjoying fresh and nutritious locally grown foods, sharing the labor and the bounty, providing an oasis for wildlife, keeping city dwellers connected to nature, and building a strong community.
In Potatoes on Rooftops: Farming in the City (Annick, 2012; Gr 3-6), Hadley Dyer touches upon similar themes, while expanding the treatment to a global perspective and incorporating food supply and environmental issues. Included are discussions of “food miles” (distance traveled from farm to plate), “food deserts” (inner-city neighborhoods without sources of healthy foods nearby), and worldwide hunger. Fascinating examples of urban gardens are featured, such as vertical gardens in Los Angeles, an underground bank vault turned high-tech farm in Tokyo, and vacant lots transformed to growing plots in Cuba. With an eye to sustainability, spreads also treat aquaponics, water harvesting, composting, and more.
Practical tips for envisioning and initiating a manageable garden are provided, along with info about the benefits to health, community, and environment. The writing is upbeat, the layout is appealing, and numerous full-color photos showcase urban gardens across the globe.
Also utilizing a global approach, Nikki Tate’s Down to Earth (Orca, 2013; Gr 3-6) provides an overview of how youngsters help to produce, prepare, and distribute food. Sections introduce various crops (including worldwide staples such as rice and cassava), poultry-keeping and egg production, other livestock (goats, pigs, cattle, etc.), and working animals (from plow-pulling oxen in China to fertilizer-producing worms). The engaging text is accompanied by well-captioned photos highlighting farms and families from numerous cultures and locales, many in developing countries, as well as the happenings on the author’s small farm on Vancouver Island, BC.
Increase your students’ awareness of global food issues by sharing Katie Smith Milway’s The Good Garden (Kids Can, 2010; Gr 3-6), a based-in-fact story set in Honduras. When Papa is forced to leave home and seek work, María Luz is placed in charge of her family’s increasingly unproductive vegetable plot. With help from her teacher, the girl learns effective and sustainable farming techniques (composting, terracing, etc.) that allow her to improve the harvest, ensure that the family has enough food to eat, and earn money to free them from reliance on local coyotes (profiteering middlemen) and help build a better future. Appealingly illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault, the book ends with additional information and resources about food security, including a dedicated web site that features video of the real María Luz, helpful background info, and lesson plans.
Have your students read two or more of these titles and identify important themes. How does agriculture effect the environment? What are some important food issues that impact the global community? What are the benefits of urban and/or locally sustainable gardening? How does food production influence world hunger? What role do young people play in farming? Kids can use examples from both the texts and illustrations to support their points during a classroom discussion, write a research paper, or put together an opinion piece about how they would end world hunger.
Resources for Adults
Bucklin-Sporer, Arden & Rachel Kathleen Pringle. How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. Timber Pr. 2010. pap. $24.95. ISBN 978-1-60469-000-2.
Waters, Alice. Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea. Chronicle. 2008. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780811862806
The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those references in the above books and classroom activities:
RI. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
W. 1.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects.
SL. 1.2. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud….
W. 2.2. Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definition to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.
W. 2.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects.
RI. 3.7. Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
W. 3.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events….
W. 3.7. Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.
SL. 3.4. Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant descriptive details….
RI. 4.1. Refer to details and example in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
W. 4.1. Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.
W. 4.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events….
W. 4.7. Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
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