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Back to School: Campus Gardens Help Students Learn to Grow Food, Knowledge

As a new school year starts, some students will spend time outside, in the fresh air. They’ll get their hands dirty growing food in school gardens. In the process, they may even improve their academic mastery.

Those students are part of a growing national trend. School gardens are positioned to become fixtures in primary and secondary education, according to this document from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.

As students return to classes in the next few weeks, some will toil outdoors in campus gardens to grow crops, while others will tend to ornamental plants, said Susan Webb, a regional specialized agent with UF/IFAS Extension, who’s based in Plant City, Florida.

“I would say the majority of school gardens are used to grow food, but many also have a butterfly garden or an herb garden and flowers,” Webb said. “In many schools, these elements might be mixed into one garden. Production methods also differ. Some of the more technical agricultural programs may include hydroponics and aquaponics.”

When it comes to gardens, Florida schools get a built-in advantage: Students can grow throughout the academic year. That means teachers and students with existing gardens will spend the first couple of weeks at the start of the school year, getting their gardens going again, Webb said. Other schools will start brand new gardens as the academic year progresses.

UF/IFAS county Extension offices throughout Florida get questions about starting school gardens throughout the school year, and they help put in the bases for the gardens, Webb said.

School gardens fill different needs and purposes and are often started for myriad reasons, Webb said.

For example, some teachers and school district staff start gardens because they want students to know where their food comes from and to give students opportunities to try new vegetables. The food can go to the school’s cafeteria, it can go home with the student or it can go to local organizations. Some teachers use the produce for taste tests.

Furthermore, when students garden, they learn harvest and food safety practices. That’s important when food from the garden goes to the school cafeteria for taste-testing, Webb said.

School gardens can also serve scholarly purposes. Many different subjects can be taught in and tied to a garden. Webb said. For example, students can measure and chart the growth of a specific crop, reinforcing math concepts.

“The possibilities for linking a garden to subject matter are endless: history, social studies, English, language arts, math and science all have the potential to be taught out in a garden,” Webb said. One of the most exciting aspects of a school garden is to see it integrated into the different grade levels and subject matters as a living laboratory or outdoor classroom, she said.

Sometimes, the garden gives students what Webb calls a “brain break” – a time to slow down and take a step back from what they are doing in the classroom.

“I’ve heard teachers discuss all these different benefits and uses of a school garden,” Webb said. “Often teachers start gardens for one reason, but then are pleasantly surprised to see the various benefits that can come from a garden, even for the teachers themselves.”

“In an increasingly digitized world, school gardens offer a space for students to learn outside, through hands-on activities,” she said. “School gardens also connect students to the foods that they eat, to Florida agriculture and our shared natural environment.”

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By: Brad Buck, 813-757-2224, bradbuck@ufl.edu

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

 

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