When I walk to the post office, I often cut through the elementary school playground which is not far from my house. Once school is out, a small garden pops up to the west of the jungle gym, a plot that is planted and maintained by kids who spend time in the local out-of-school program for school-age kids that are a little too old for day care and a little too young to stay home alone. I’m not sure the plot is large enough to raise enough vegetables to feed a family of four, let alone the whole group of kids that participate in the summer program. My own garden is on the small side, but it might even be larger than this little plot. Still, it’s something: a thing for them to care for and watch grow, to help them understand how the food on their plates got there, to give them space away from electronics.
I don’t recall having a garden plot to tend in my school, but I do remember planting seeds in cut-off milk cartons and growing something in the classroom that we could take home and transplant in the spring. And I do remember the delight of having persuaded a teacher (even up through college) to move class outside for the hour.
In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv highlights the work of school programs that focus on “place-based” education, where schools find ways to use the local ecosystem — whether it’s a nearby “river, city park or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground” to enhance learning in “math, science, language arts, biology, chemistry and economics.”
One could say that it’s nice for kids to get out of the classroom, but researchers like David Sobel would say that it’s more than that. Louv reports on Sobel’s research, noting that “when it comes to reading skills, ‘the Holy Grail of education reform,’ says Sobel, place-based or environment-based education should be considered ‘one of the knights in shining armor.’ Students in these programs typically outperform their peers in traditional classrooms.”
Education leaders in Finland seem to have caught on to this phenomenon. In a 2003 study, Finland scored better than 31 other countries, including the U.S. Louv summarizes the Finnish approach: “Finnish students don’t enter any school until they are seven years old — practically senior citizens in America. Finland offers no special programs for the gifted student, and spends less per student on education than the United States. While requiring educators to meet national curriculum requirements, Finland gives them wide leeway in how they teach. And Finnish educators believe in the power of — get this — play. In the United States, meanwhile, the trend is toward dropping recess. But at a typical school in the Suutarila district of Helsinki, students ‘pad about in their socks. After every 45-minute lesson, they are let loose outside for 15 minutes so they can burn off steam,’ according to the Times. Finland also encourages environment-based education and has moved a substantial amount of classroom experience into natural settings or the surrounding community.”
Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health explains that “The core of learning is not in the information . . . being pre-digested from the outside, but in the interaction between a child and the environment.”
In one California school where students had been working a garden plot, the teacher said, “For us, the garden has been much more than simply planting vegetables and taking care of them. It’s been a bonding experience. When we go to the garden as a class at the end of the day, there is a feeling of shared joy and peace no matter how hard the day has been.”
I’m not in school any more. And I’ve not been the subject of studies to prove it out. But I am convinced that my own small garden is a place of peace and healing, that taking myself outdoors every day and putting my hands to the leaves and my fingers in the dirt is a way to think better.
We’ve been reading Last Child in the Woods together this month. Whether you’re reading along with us or just picking up the highlights, share your thoughts on this week’s reading and the question of relationship with nature in the comments. Have a favorite quote or excerpt? Let us know, and check out the previous posts in this series:
Photo by Mike Beales, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.