ByChase Ezell

Oct 14, 2014

Math, science, engineering, critical thinking and …. gardening?  Turns out, learning gardens are much more than just a pretty place, and organizations such as REAL School Gardens are cultivating the concept at elementary schools across the country.  According to REAL School Gardens, a 501(c)3,

‘Learning gardens are as critical to a student’s academic success as a computer or a microscope … improving student engagement and academic achievement.’  Their program strategy was grown out of creating a hands-on learning experience for students, teachers and local community alike.

Image courtesy of REAL School Gardens
Image courtesy of REAL School Gardens

Sowing the seeds of success

REAL School Gardens first identifies and partners with a low-income partner school.  They then seek out corporate partners who, in turn, finance a large portion of the multi-year program.  However, the REAL School Gardens’ program doesn’t just involve the construction of a garden before everyone moves on to other things.

It turns out it is much more than just the garden itself.  From day one, the program involves input and assistance from all parties – students, teachers, corporate partners and volunteers.  According to REAL School Gardens, “students start learning before the garden is even built.”

Students first design the learning garden tailored to their specific school’s needs and resources as part of a design competition.  The design competition challenges students to apply math, critical thinking and collaboration.  At the “Design & Dine” event, parents, students, funding partners and design experts review submissions and select a winner.

learning gardens
Image courtesy of REAL School Gardens

After a winner has been selected, REAL School Gardens holds the “Big Dig” – a single day volunteer experience where the learning garden is constructed.  Parents, students and funding partners all pitch in to help construct the garden in its entirety.

Through use of the learning garden, students and teachers then get hands-on experience in;

Verifying program success

In addition to the hands-on program experience itself, REAL School Gardens has the results data to prove program success.  Partner schools have seen a 12-15% increase in standardized test score pass rates.

According to the organization, the improvements are often most noticeable in science – a “critical indicator of long term career success.” Ninety-four percent of teachers report that the program increases student engagement in their other lessons.  In other words, students are more successful all around.  And the positive results are not just felt by students.

Image courtesy of REAL School Gardens
Image courtesy of REAL School Gardens

Analyzing seven different measures, the program almost doubles teacher effectiveness in partner schools.  Ninety percent of teachers say the program

makes them better prepared to help students succeed academically and after three years in the program, teachers are almost twice as likely to say they are satisfied with their jobs.

REAL School Gardens provides a three-year teacher training program, where their educators work with the teachers one-on-one to show them how to use their new outdoor classroom for academic instruction.  REAL School Gardens also provides lesson plans to make it as easy as possible for teachers to integrate garden learning into the regular school day.

To date, REAL School Gardens has reached over 53,000 students annually, partnering with over 100 schools across the country.

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By Chase Ezell

Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for