Elementary School Garden Programs Enhance Science Education for All Learners

By Rye, James A.; Selmer, Sarah J. et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview
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Elementary School Garden Programs Enhance Science Education for All Learners


Rye, James A., Selmer, Sarah J., Pennington, Sara, Vanhorn, Laura, Fox, Sarah, Kane, Sara, Teaching Exceptional Children


A national movement is under way to establish elementary school gardens, which can serve academic, social, environmental remediation, and other purposes while positively impacting students' science achievement (Blair, 2009; Gaylie, 2009). According to KidsGardening (n.d.), gardening benefits all children in ways that are particularly evident for those with special needs, such as fostering inquiry and developing motor skills. With the focus on access of standards for all students, children with disabilities should have full access to the elementary school curriculum so that they can develop the interest and ability to pursue the more challenging courses at the middle and secondary levels (Burgstahler, 2006). A school garden program or garden-based learning (GBL; Desmond, Grieshop, & Subramaniam, 2004) is an instructional approach to science that can facilitate full access because it is especially conducive to cross-disciplinary applications (Czerniak, 2007). GBL can incorporate physical resources beyond an outdoor school garden, such as in-classroom vermicomposting, seed germination stations, and EarthBoxes. Desmond et al. contend that GBL has the potential to transform the status quo for contemporary education from a "sedentary, sterile experience" (p. 9) to one that "contribute [s] to academic skill . . . [and] a child's development in a social, moral, and practical or life skills [sense]" (p. 12), such as ecological literacy and a sense of place and community.

Many students- particularly students with disabilities - may not reach the highest levels of learning in a lecture-based setting. In contrast to lecture, GBL provides hands-on, real life examples and kinesthetic experiences that can enrich the learning of all students. For example, in GBL students move, touch, create, and are responsible for developing and nurturing an environment. Instead of telling students about the growth cycle, teachers become coaches by helping students actively explore and manipulate soil, worms, seeds, and plants. They can have conversations with students as they observe that seeds germinate and seedlings grow. Students can use their hands to show and point to different plant parts rather than be taught using one-dimensional techniques based solely on paper and pencil. Beyond instruction, the school garden can also be used by teachers to allow students a needed "sensory break" to water and measure plants or simply to admire what they have achieved by growing something on their own.

The promise of GBL for all students prompted a large suburban elementary school with diverse learners (over 700 students, 19% limited English proficiency, 23% special needs) - hereafter known as "Hill Elementary"- to undertake and share the potential impact of this concept. Based on the experiences of the educators engaged in this effort, guidelines are provided in this article for initiating GBL, integrating it within the school curriculum, and accommodating the needs of students with disabilities.

GBL and National Science Education Standards

Recent articles in the elementary science teacher literature tie GBL to the National Science Education Standards (NSES; National Research Council, 1996) and report engaging students in planting, observing, and measuring as well as investigating soils and the concept of weathering (Ashbrook, 2009; Piotrowski, Mildenstein, Dungan, & Brewer, 2007). GBL activities generally provide the opportunity to extend inquiry-based learning over time, and GBL is sufficiently robust to address all eight of the NSES for content (see Table 1). The guiding principie of the NSES- reinforced by A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012)is that all learners should have access to and fully participate in science education (McGinnis & Stefanich, 2007; NRC, 1996). That access is precisely what GBL provides.

School Gardening and Science Achievement

Research supports the positive impact of GBL for all students, including students with disabilities (Blair, 2009).

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Elementary School Garden Programs Enhance Science Education for All Learners
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