Tag Archives: outdoor classroom

5 ways edible gardens make kids smarter and healthier

1 Feb

I just created a presentation about the evolution of our school garden at George Watts Montessori. (I can’t wait to tell you why I was doing that, but that will have to wait for another post.)

To show what we’ve accomplished, I delved into the 5 biggest ways the garden has contributed to the students’ health and academics:

1. Kids are tasting more vegetables and fruits — and learning how to cook them. Tasting what’s growing in the garden is so essential, but it’s also a challenge to incorporate into the school day.

At schools like Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., they have kitchen and garden staff who work together in figuring out what’s ready to harvest and cook with children — and then do it during set-aside blocks of time. If you’re not lucky enough to have that arrangement, you have to fit in tastings somehow.

At our school, the tastings have happened as a school-wide “celebration” — like Harvest Feast or Green Smoothie Day — and also as an individual classroom activity. This year, for example, classrooms gathered lettuce to make salads for a mid-afternoon snack and harvested broccoli for a recipe a teacher brought in. Other classrooms nibble from the plants as they pass through the garden on their way to recess.

What can you make with spinach and strawberries (both grown in our garden)? Green smoothies!

This spring, we’ll be trying something new. More about that in a future post…

2. Kids move more. Outside in the garden, kids can stretch, soak up some sunshine vitamins, and have a sensorial experience, thanks to all the smells and textures in the garden.

But the biggest boon to students’ health? The .25-mile walking path that we installed as part of the garden expansion.

Many classes run the track before starting recess. It’s one way for teachers — and not just the P.E. coach — to help kids reach the daily recommended levels of physical activity, 60 minutes. A growing body of research shows the connection between physical activity and academic performance (not to mention the health benefits of exercise).

So anytime a teacher encourages a run around the track, she’s helping kids get smarter.

A class does a lap before recess begins.

3. It’s a learning lab. I’ve told you before about the garden-based curriculum we’re using at George Watts Montessori. But teachers don’t always need customized lessons to encourage learning outside. Journaling, measuring, making real-world observations, conducting experiments, gathering specimens — it’s all possible in a garden.

Students can witness what happens when they don’t water young seeds enough, or how slowly their compost heap decomposes. It’s like this Chinese proverb puts it: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

4. It brings food equity to our community. We have enough space in our garden now that we produce more than students can taste during the school day. So we’ve been able to think about how to share food.

Some weeks (with the help of the school’s counselor) we send home fresh vegetables to school families in need. Over the summer, everything we harvested was given away to families at a weekly Garden Giveaway Day at the school. At last spring’s Great Tomato Giveaway, every family who wanted one got a free potted tomato plant, along with a list of ways to cook and eat a tomato.

And recently, over winter break, 20 or so students and their families came to the garden to harvest spinach and carrots. We took loads of it to our downtown soup kitchen, Urban Ministries, so the chef could turn it into a meal.

5. It builds community. This means a lot of different things to me. It can mean a small group of parents coming together to work on the garden beds, or the entire school community coming together to celebrate Rootfest. Or it can point to the many connections our school has made via the garden.

So far, we’ve forged partnerships with urban gardening groups like Bountiful Backyards and SEEDS. We’ve worked closely with the nutritionists from DINE for LIFE who serve public schools. We’ve helped and been helped by Duke students who want to make a difference in Durham. We’ve collaborated with other teachers and parents throughout the public school system. We’ve received grants and in-kind donations from organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, NC Beautiful, Whole Foods, Burt’s Bees, Cabot Farms and our own school alumni group Friends of Watts. (And our PTA continues to provide the critical financial and volunteer support that sustains this program.)

With all those people and organizations helping to lift up our students and lift up our school, we’ve accomplished a bazillion times more than we would have alone.


Smells like garlic season

3 Nov

My recent garden session with fourth and fifth graders at George Watts Montessori started with a question: “When you buy garlic at the grocery store, where do you think that garlic comes from?”

Just some of last summer's garlic crop

The students had never really thought about it, so they cautiously offered answers. One student said, “It depends on what store you go to,” which is probably true.

“Three out of four of the garlic heads you see in grocery stores are likely from China. That’s our main source for garlic,” I told them. “So, is there anything wrong with that? Maybe it’s perfectly fine that most of our garlic comes from China, or maybe it’s not. What do you think?”

The answers came quickly.

“No, that’s polluting the air!”

“That’s wasting energy, if it has to come all the way from China!”

“Everything comes from China these days.” (I’m not kidding; one of the students actually said that.)

I showed them what I had in the small paper bag I was carrying — 8 heads of garlic from local garden shop Stone Bros. & Byrd that cost about $3 total.

I told them, “We can plant our own garlic right here in our garden. It’s easy to grow. And when it’s ready for picking after a few months, we can harvest and dry it, and it’s ready for using in some of our favorite meals, like pasta and pizza.

“We don’t need to have someone in China do this for us and then put it on a plane and send it all the way over here.”

So that’s what the students did. They started by smoothing out the soil in our freshly turned garden bed. Then they measured and made holes 6 inches apart. They chose the largest and most viable garlic cloves, planted them 2 inches deep — with the pointy side up — and loosely covered them with soil. We covered the bed with straw and marked it with a kid-painted “Garlic” sign.

We should have about 50 garlic heads to harvest in early summer. ($3 investment + several months = 50 garlic heads.)

Last summer, we gave away lots of garlic heads from the garden at our summer farmer’s market at the school. With any luck, we’ll have a big crop again this year.

Straw protects the garlic bed over the winter.

Giving away garlic at the school's summer market

Are you ready?

20 Oct

Only 11 more days until the cooking-eating-gardening-crafts-and-music extravaganza known as …

Expect hands-on cooking lessons for kids, mind-bendingly good (and healthful) tastings, pumpkins for painting, games, crafts and live music! Kids can crank an old-fashioned apple press by hand and see the apples turn into juice before their eyes! Teachers will take to the stage for a performance you don’t want to miss! And the kettle corn and caramel apples will be as good as any at the State Fair!

George Watts Montessori wouldn’t be having this event if it weren’t for the organizations and businesses listed at the bottom of the poster — it’s as simple as that. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation gave us a grant to help enhance our grounds and outdoor education. Whole Foods is kicking in cases of apples and pumpkins. Chef Marco Shaw of Piedmont is donating his time and talent. SEEDS is bringing their apple press (operated by DIG kids). Boxcarr is bringing a special menu of items for the day — just for us. And NCCU students are devoting classroom time to coming up with some fun and educational booths for kids, which they’ll also be staffing on the day of the event.

Say THANKS to all these wonderful folks, next time you see them!

My, how you’ve grown

1 Oct

Fourth and fifth grade students are introduced to the edible garden with a lesson called “Garden Changes Over Time.”

It goes something like this: Measure the length and width of the garden. Use the measurements to create a grid over the garden map that divides the entire space into one-meter squares. (And voila — math.) Assign each student a square. Tell students that, throughout the year, they’ll observe changes in their small plots. They should draw and write about those changes in their journals.

Simple, right? Here’s what it looks like in action:


When I saw these students the other day, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos. You can’t believe how peaceful the scene was. No one was talking or peeking at someone else’s work or seeming distracted by the gorgeous weather. Everyone was peering down at their own plants and at their journals, trying to faithfully capture their plots in watercolor, while soaking up a little morning sun.

School walking path, outdoor classroom coming soon!

14 Jul

Eighteen months ago, a few dozen parents, teachers and students met in the George Watts media center to doodle and draw our way to an “edible schoolyard.”

Landscape designer Katherine Gill draws with students

The group, led by Durham Area Designers, was asked, “What would you want an edible schoolyard to look like at George Watts? Where would you put it? What sorts of elements would you include?”

What we ended up with were seven different drawings full of creative, amazing ideas that wrapped around the school building. From those drawings, we collected common elements — the ideas that came up again and again. From that list of elements, we created a master drawing and began work on the pilot garden, with the help and talent of Bountiful Backyards and a bunch of other folks.

One group presents its vision for an edible schoolyard

Our original master plan. See the link below for the NEW plan.

Now we delve into the biggest step of all — installing a walking path, an outdoor classroom, shed and more perennials and annual beds near the playground.

Click here to view a PDF of the NEW plan! **

What do you think about the plan? (Sorry I can’t paste it into the post, btw. But if you click on the link, you’ll get a nice printable version of the drawing.) Feel free to post any comments below.

We owe a big thanks to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, who believe in the project strongly enough to grant us $28,000 to add the physical elements to our grounds and develop a garden-based curriculum. (Note to other grant seekers: We applied for a Healthy Active Communities grant.)

So this summer, while a clutch of teachers writes a series of lessons, we break ground on the walking path. (When I say “we,” I mean someone with a backhoe.) And parents Kenneth Luker and Derek Jones, both of whom are architects at The Freelon Group, are designing the outdoor classroom space.

You should know that landscape designer Katherine Gill, who is pictured above, has been an incredibly valuable partner to our school from the get-go — and she’s not even a parent. Not only has she been with us from that initial drawing session in January 2009, but she drew (and re-drew) the most recent plan for the playground revitalization. As a volunteer.

She’s also working on a design for new gardens and playground at Durham Central Park as a volunteer. She runs an Urban CSA from her massive backyard garden. And she’s LEED certified. If you have any landscape design needs, please consider hiring her. She can’t buy groceries with my steady stream of “thank you’s.”

A blurb about her biz:

Tributary specializes in designing and using a diversity of materials, from native, edible and textural plant species, to locally harvested wood, stone, metal, and concrete that are custom-designed and built to work best within your landscape. As such, Tributary offers a unique ability to create lively, lovely, and downright delicious outdoor environments that work for you and the environment.

Email her at katherinegill (at) earthlink (dot) net.

** The plan was recently redrawn to allow the mural more visibility. All beds against the wall will be in-ground, as opposed to raised. The only bed in front of the mural has been pulled farther away, so that it’s on the other side of the walking path. And the plantings there will be low-to-the-ground things like lettuces and carrots.

Making the jump from garden to Living Classroom

8 Feb

Science is everywhere you turn in a school garden, from the photosynthesizing leaves to the armadillo-style pill bugs that help break down leaves into compost.

But unless a teacher is already comfortable in a garden, he may need guidance in using it as an outdoor classroom where kids can get their hands dirty.

Before you start offering a teacher guidance, though, consider this: Teachers are already overwhelmed. Their task is to teach an ever-changing curriculum to a mixed bag of children, so that every student can pass a year’s worth of tests. How well they achieve that task affects the standing and funding of the school (and maybe even their own jobs, given the trend toward teacher evaluations that take test scores into account).

So think about how to make the school garden relevant to their goals. Because if it’s not relevant, why in the world would a teacher disrupt her routine to take students outside to a garden, when she could stay in her comfort zone?

That’s why I’ve started calling the George Watts garden a “Living Classroom.” The message: It’s not just a beautiful space. It’s a space where kids can move freely as they’re engaged in meaningful, hands-on science, math and literacy lessons that mirror the standard course of study.

(Just for the record: There’s nothing wrong with simply having beautiful spaces or letting kids explore nature independently or introducing kids to the idea of growing their own food. Some — not all — people believe in the value of those things. But if the goal is to get classrooms outside in the first place, it helps to tie the garden to something universally important and measurable, like learning science.)

I’m also filming short videos to show how some teachers are delivering hands-on lessons outside, to spark ideas among other teachers and to give parents a behind-the-scenes look.

In the short videos that follow, you’ll see Lower Elementary teacher Lauren Vejvoda lead third graders through an experiment that shows how good soil can be lost when rain and wind cause erosion — and why kids should care. (I posted the text for this lesson earlier.)

My favorite part: When kids make the connection between having healthy soil and making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Science in the garden: Why soil matters

4 Jan

Winter is a great time to rest, whether you’re a plant or a person, so we’re all taking advantage of the lull in the garden at George Watts Montessori. Some of our vegetables, like the cabbages and carrots, are close to being harvested, and everything else has already been plucked or slowed down until spring.

Mulching with straw

Given the natural hiatus, it’s an ideal time to do some soil-and-erosion lessons with students in the garden.

Soil happens to be a garden lynchpin, in more ways than one. Obviously, you need healthy soil to grow things.

But soil is also a great way to connect the garden with the science lessons kids have to learn anyway — like, lessons about humus and soil absorbency.

My granddaddy, 1970s

What I think the garden can do that a book can’t is help kids understand why they should care about soil in the first place.

These are two of the activities we’re going to do with our elementary school students to directly connect science curriculum (N.C. Standard Course of Study) with the school garden.

You can find these sorts of hands-on activities from a range of sources, but this is from one of my favorites — Evergreen, an inspiring Canadian group that aims to deepen the connection between people and outdoor spaces. (I was lucky enough to hear a presentation by the director of the group’s Learning Grounds program at this year’s NC Outdoor Classroom Symposium.)

Work with your teacher liaisons on this. I found these specific activities after sitting down with a Lower Elementary teacher (1st, 2nd, 3rd grades) who is also on our school’s science committee. She told me about what will appear on science benchmark tests, what science “kits” classrooms receive during the year, and what she needs to cover as part of the N.C. Standard Course of Study for science.

Ask teachers what lessons they want to spiral review in the garden. What activities make sense? What materials should the garden have to make it a true outdoor classroom?


LESSON: The value of topsoil

THE BIG QUESTION: Why is topsoil important in our world? How does healthy topsoil affect our lives?

Worldwide, 25 billion tons of agricultural topsoil are swept away every year. That’s 7% of the globe’s good growing land every decade. In these activities students will come to appreciate how little topsoil there is in the world and how it can easily be lost through erosion. In the garden, students will discover soil stewardship techniques to build soil health and protect soil from erosion.

Activity #1: If the Earth Were an Apple…

Use an apple to demonstrate the need for soil stewardship.


• Apple

• Sharp knife


1. Ask the students what they know about soil. What is it? Why do you think plants need it? How does it help humans?

2. Show the students the apple and give the following demonstration:

Let’s say this apple is the Earth.

Cut the apple into quarters and set three of the quarters aside.

Three quarters of this apple represent all the oceans on earth. The remaining quarter represents all the land on earth.

Cut the remaining quarter in half and set one piece aside.

One half of the land is unfit for humans; it is either too hot, like a desert, or too cold, like the north and south poles.

Cut the remaining piece into quarters and set three of them aside.

Of the land that humans can live on, only this small piece is land that we can grow food on. The rest is too rocky, or there isn’t enough sun for plants to grow.

Peel the remaining piece.

This thin peel represents the thickness of the soil in which we grow our food. It is only about three feet deep. This tiny portion is the only area out of the whole earth where all the right conditions exist to grow food. Enough food has to be produced on this small bit of land to feed all of the people on earth.

3. With so little soil in the world, what should people be doing to take care of it?


Activity #2: Erosion

It takes over 100 years to produce just an inch of soil, and in many parts of the world existing soil is lost as much as 18 times faster than new soil is formed. This activity demonstrates to students how this important resource can be lost through erosion by rain and wind when the garden is left bare for the winter.


• Four waterproof trays — you can use old baking sheets with rims

• Sod to fit snugly in one of the trays

• Soil

• Watering can


1. In the winter, there is usually plenty of rain and wind. What do you think the rain and wind will do to the soil? When soil or rocks are moved from one place to another by rain or wind, we call this erosion.

2. Ask the students to make predictions about what will happen when the wind blows across the tray filled with sod and the tray filled with soil.

3. One at a time, hold the trays filled with sod and soil over one of the empty trays. Invite a few students to blow across each tray to simulate wind. Notice how much soil collects in the empty tray.

4. Lean the two sod- and soil-filled trays on an angle against a wall, with the base of each resting inside one of the empty trays to catch residual water and soil

5. Ask the students to make predictions about what will happen to the soil in each tray when water is poured across the top of them.

6. Pour an equal amount of water across the tops of the two trays for 5 seconds and observe the runoff that has collected. Which tray lost the most soil?

7. What happens to soil when the wind blows on it or it gets rained on? What might prevent soil from eroding? What could we do in our garden to prevent erosion?

We can point to three erosion-prevention tactics we’re using in our garden:

1. COVER CROPS (We’ve planted crimson clover.)

One of the ways students can protect their garden soil during the winter is to plant a cover crop. Cover crops are usually non-edible crops and often include a mix of different plants with roots that can keep soil from washing away during heavy rains and draw nutrients from deep down in the soil. Planting a cover crop also provides competition for weeds; well-established cover crop will shade out weeds entirely. In the spring, the cover crop is pulled up and added to the compost or cut down, left to dry and dug into the soil.

2. OVERWINTERING CROPS (In our garden, garlic and onions are examples of overwintering crops; we’ll harvest them in the spring.)

In addition to planting cover crops, a portion of the garden can be set aside for planting overwintering crops. These crops start their growth slowly in the fall and winter and do the rest of their growing when the weather warms up the following year.


Another way for students to protect the soil in the garden is to cover it with mulch. Mulch is a layer of organic matter put on the surface of the soil and may include materials such as straw, hay, leaves or compost.

A useful analogy is the annual shedding of leaves in the forest, creating a layer of leaf litter on the forest floor. Both fallen leaves and mulches provide a layer of insulation, suppress weeds, decompose to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil and provide a place for helpful insects to hide. Just like the forest floor doesn’t turn itself over, there is no need to dig mulch into the soil. Natural processes help to incorporate the mulch into the soil, and any mulch that hasn’t decomposed by the spring can be raked up and added to the compost.

** When you’re finished with this activity, return soil to one of the vegetable beds, the compost pile or to the bin where you found it.

** Lesson Extension: Have students walk around the school grounds and identify evidence of soil erosion. If they have access to a video camera, use it to document the examples. How could the examples of erosion be prevented?