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The Meanings of School Gardens: Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard

No question about it, the Edible Schoolyard garden at Berkeley’s King Middle School is a beautiful place: an acre of land right behind the school, well tended with lots of well-planned growing plots, learning spaces, and resources. But what is the meaning of the garden? What is its role in the school?

Food is precious.

Food is precious.

You would not be wrong if you said the garden was there to teach children about growing and eating healthy food. But that isn’t the whole answer, and the fact that it isn’t raises interesting questions about how we think about education and educational programs.

I have been involved with a number of teaching gardens over the past 20 years, on both the east and west coasts–which is what made me want to visit the Edible Schoolyard garden. In every case, the gardens seemed to have a main philosophical rationale, a justification for their construction and staffing and maintenance. In one case, an urban teaching garden in North Philadelphia recreated bits of a local habitat in the middle of acres of concrete and macadam. There, I had the privilege of creating curricula that would help the school’s teachers bring science classes outdoors for high-quality science explorations. Other school and teaching gardens have other themes: butterfly habitat gardens remain especially popular, for instance.

However, in almost every case, the uses that the gardens allow exceed these narrow definitions. One area private school had a small organic garden, with a number of fruit trees, a chicken coop, and beds of herbs and vegetables. Did students learn about growing food? Absolutely. Science? Yes, that too, in both explicit and subtle ways. However, social-emotional learning was a big part of what happened during students’ time in the garden, as well. So students took away much more than simply how to garden organically.

School and teaching gardens have great “affordances,” to use the word as Greeno does. It allows many kinds of interactions among its users, unlike highly constrained school classroom environment.

The Edible Schoolyard garden takes advantage of this, building in relationships between the garden program and the science curriculum; and between the kitchen program and the humanities curriculum. But you can’t reduce the garden to being a subset of the science curriculum, nor the kitchen to the humanities. And I think that makes some school heads nervous: how do you justify these gardens if you cannot easily label their impact? We want to be able to reduce the effect to a simple statement.

I think the gardens’ justification comes in something irreducible, though simple enough: it is the ‘ecological validity‘ of the learning that happens in these spaces that seems to be so powerful. In other words, unlike learning a subject in an artificially constrained classroom environment and then having no idea how to apply it in the real world, garden learning by its nature allows students to see “what really happens” in a big, loosely controlled space.

Whether you are interested in hands-on learning, or nutrition, or connecting schools to their communities, you may want to visit the Edible Schoolyard garden. It is a teaching garden done very well–and a model for many other similar efforts around the country.

Learn more about the garden at the Edible Schoolyard site. Of course, if you live close or can find a way to get out to the San Francisco Bay area, you can check out one of their free monthly tours. If you attend a tour, you will have a chance to purchase some of the related educational curricula and other publications at the end.

Back on their site, you can find standards-oriented classroom lessons, as well as recipes for your own garden or kitchen.

Finally, a few pictures of the garden in the spring of 2009:

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