Space to Grow Schools Extend the Classroom Outdoors

August 20, 2019

students gardening Chicago school

When the Space to Grow schoolyard opened in 2016 at Wadsworth STEM in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, the students were thrilled with the new basketball courts and playground equipment. But Space to Grow schoolyards are so much more than that. They truly serve as an extension of the classroom and a way to educate students about the natural environment around them. Plus, children with access to natural areas and green space are more active—one study showed that students who had access to natural areas at school engaged in physical activity 10 times longer than those students who had limited access to nature at school.

Incorporating a school garden into curriculum doesn’t have to be hard, says Wadsworth middle school science teacher Pannha Sann. Instead of focusing on large lessons, he incorporates mini lessons out in the garden into what he’s already teaching in the classroom.

For example, his 8th grade students are learning about energy, so they talk about the food growing in the garden as an energy source. His 7th grade students are learning about soil formation and use the garden as a living laboratory. His 6th grade students are learning about cellular respiration, and plants growing in the garden are a great way to bring that subject to life.

Planting and harvesting food in the garden also connects students to the food they eat, Sann says. When they planted corn for popcorn before spring break, the students were confused when they didn’t see popped corn growing. “They couldn’t get it because they’re used to seeing popcorn from the bag,” Sann says. “This is really getting them connected to where food comes from.” Kids are also more eager to try unfamiliar foods, like radishes, when they see them growing in the garden. “It’s good that these kids see the actual vegetable and see how it works and what it does for you,” Sann says.

Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands are committed to supporting the staff at each Space to Grow school in their effort to incorporate their new outdoor space into instruction during the school day. The Space to Grow managing partners have developed a set of resources and lesson plans to help teachers use the school garden and schoolyard as extensions of the classroom. A number of our other partners have resources available as well! Chicago Public Schools’ GrowWELL toolkit also has tips for integrating a school garden into the curriculum, and Big Green Chicago even has a video library with lots of helpful how-to guides.