(Meg submitted the following article to share with her colleagues around the world. If you have a story let us know)
A Guide to the Benefits of Outdoor Educational Spaces and Outdoor Space Installation
Project Dragonfly, Miami of Ohio University
In an age where high stakes testing has become the norm, educators and parents are looking for ways to increase performance of students while helping students decrease stress. Interestingly, Parrish (2009) found that simply by participating in an outdoor education program, or learning in the out-of-doors, students demonstrate an increase in test scores versus their peers who did not get an outdoor experience. Additional achievement has been shown in schools that have green school grounds. According to Bell (2006) not only do students perform better on tests, but there are also fewer documented behavior problems, lower exposure to toxins for students and staff, and reduced absenteeism.
Canaris (1995), Clayton (2007), and Kaplan (1973) are among many researchers that have found links between time spent in gardens and an increase in motivation, positivity and feelings of enrichment. According to Gross and Lane (2007) outdoor activities such as gardening can be an escape for people who are showing sings of stress. Research done by Taylor et al (2001) show that there are positive benefits to inner city youth from access to green spaces for play. Specifically, their study focused on the fact that children who played in green spaces were more able to self-discipline appropriately, thus resulting in less stress overall. Another study concerning green spaces was completed by Wells and Evans (2003) which focused on rural children and the fact that nearby nature was shown to reduce stress levels. Wells’ study found that even a ‘view of nature helped reduce stress among highly stressed children’. These two studies are interesting in that both show positive benefits due to nature for children regardless of whether their environment was rural or urban. As any teacher can tell you, school can be a source of stress for students and staff alike. Because the school environment can be so stressful, the addition of an outdoor space which doubles as a classroom is something that could benefit countless students.
The idea of immersing children in nature in order to help them develop appropriately is cyclical. If a child is allowed to spend time in the out-of-doors they will have a better chance of developing with less stress surrounding them. If they have developed appropriately, then they will be more likely to have the ability to think logically and compassionately, and will have developed some connection to nature. If they have a connection to nature, then they will feel more of a sense of ownership towards it, and will be more inclined to want to spend time in it, thus ensuring that the calming effects continue throughout their life.
With this in mind, an outdoor classroom and garden was installed at Waukesha South High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The garden was installed on Earth Day 2013 and will continue to be part of the high school for years to come. The goal was to provide a green space for teachers and students that could be incorporated into the curriculum or that could be used to simply enjoy nature.
The outdoor classroom and garden was proposed primarily because of the overwhelming data showing how green spaces in schools help with learning, motivation and behavior of students. Another unforeseen benefit of the outdoor space was that it could also contribute to overall cohesion of the school. Our intention was to have students and staff involved in multiple aspects of the garden. The psychology class, for example, expressed interest in planting herbs to study their effects on the brain. Science classes can analyze soil and observe native plants and their pollinators. Classes can simply go outside to read or have discussions. The idea was to connect students and teachers to the same green space in order to foster a general feeling of connectivity and learning. A study by Hoffman et al (2007) showed a very clear benefit to having a garden on school grounds. According to Hoffman et al, results of the study “suggest that when a learning institution provides mechanisms for students to contribute to the overall quality of the institution (such as a campus gardening program), a sense of interdependency and positive self-empowerment develops among faculty and students”.
The evidence in favor of installing an outdoor classroom or garden is overwhelming. The difficult part is to actually start working on a concept and seeing it through to installation and beyond. The following ideas are meant to be helpful tips for beginning your garden or outdoor classroom:
The very first thing to consider is whether or not the district, school board, and your administration will approve of the idea. It is best to begin by including, at the very least, your administration in the initial planning discussions. It could save you a great deal of time and heartache to find out that an outdoor classroom or garden was not an option before you began the process rather than finding that out after you had begun to put your heart, and rare free hours, into the idea.
Depending on the district, you might need to formally propose the idea to the school board and get approval before breaking ground. Because each district varies in their approaches to and protocols for these kinds of projects, it is best to secure their approval before the planning goes any further. If a trip to the school board is in store for you, you will want to know the proposed location of the classroom or garden, a rough estimate of the budget, fundraising options, specific ways in which the garden can be incorporated into various curriculum, types of plants that will be included, and the people who will be responsible for the outdoor space during the entire year. This is not an exhaustive list of what each district might want to know before granting approval, so make sure you check on additional requirements before making the proposal.
A relatively easy addition to your board presentation that could make a big impact would be to include the results of a staff survey regarding the garden. A survey of the school staff can help you get an idea of what they think of the garden and how likely it would be that they would support you in your goal. Getting the staff behind you will help you with every stage of the installation, particularly if they feel some personal connection to the idea themselves. It would benefit you to do some legwork and collaborate with different members of the staff in order to get their opinions. Ask teachers how they would like to use an outdoor space with their students and how they feel it could be incorporated into their curriculum. If you can make the connection to the outdoor space’s value to the curriculum and learning, and know that the teachers saw that connection, you will have a better chance of convincing the board of the high value to this outdoor space.
If your administration is on board, another idea would be to get the whole school involved in the initiative. Perhaps each department or grade level could take a different role on in the project. Some things that can be delegated include the creation of plant markers or signage, building of content specific curriculum that incorporates the outdoor space, fundraising, event planning to bring awareness to the space, assistance in finding donors of plants, hardscape, labor, materials, and time, and the building of a calendar showing who will care for and/or use the garden during specific time periods.
If you teach at a middle school or high school, don’t forget to utilize the content areas. The Business classes can develop a name and logo for the space to be used throughout the project. The Art and Technical Education departments can make ceramic tiles to be placed in the area or bird houses to be installed. The English department can have students write nature inspired quotes that can be written in the space. The Social Studies department can have their students research and report on nature or conservation minded individuals who have preserved outdoor spaces, like John Muir or Aldo Leopold. If you are creative, there are countless ways to involve all of the departments, grade levels, staff, and students in your school.
The importance of fundraising should not be overlooked. Gardens and outdoor classrooms can be done with varying budgets, however most will need at least some start-up money. While local businesses, staff, and parents may be able to donate much of what is used, remember that what is not given through donations must be purchased. Fundraising should be started well in advance of your proposed installation date. If your administration approves, you can always do a penny drive in the classrooms, sell t-shirts using the logo created by students, or hold a celebration concert to help raise money. Many local nurseries will agree to do plant sales at schools, and will sell the plants at cost to the school and may even donate materials or time to the outdoor space.
After fundraising has begun, it is important to make a plan for how the space should not only look but also be used. An important consideration would be to decide if you want to have a space that could be used by more than one class at any given time, in which case, you would need to design accordingly. Having a space that is multidimensional lends itself to cross-curricular usage. For example, part of the garden can have a hard scape for students to sit and participate in discussions, while another part could have plants native to your area that the students could walk between and investigate, while still another area could be a vegetable garden or small orchard that students could tend and harvest throughout the growing season. Local nurseries and landscaping companies are often more than happy to provide wisdom and design ideas if asked.
Once support has been secured, a plan has been put into place, and appropriate fundraising has occurred, it will be time to break ground, install raised garden beds, or simply plant. Make sure to check on temperature and sunlight needs of your chosen plants to ensure that they remain healthy. As with any new garden, you will want to make sure someone is on hand to water it frequently at first. Close proximity to a water source, or the ability to obtain water another way, is of paramount importance. Do not forget to involve students at this stage, as it is easy to start feeling overwhelmed with all of the plants in the ground.
As soon as you have everything in the ground, you really are ready to start enjoying the space. What you do with it will depend on your creativity, commitment, and interest levels. Installing an outdoor classroom or garden is a significant undertaking, but will pay off in dividends if you are really committed to seeing the job though to the end. Never underestimate the importance of involving others in the project, it will not only help you but it will also provide others with a sense of ownership and accomplishment. Good luck as you embark on the journey to greening up your school!
Bell, Anne C., & Dyment, J. (2006) ) Grounds for Action: Promoting Physical Activity through School Ground Greening in Canada. Evergreen. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from http://www.evergreen.ca/en/resources/schools/research-policy.sn
Canaris, I. (1995). Growing foods for growing minds: Integrating gardening and nutrition education into the total curriculum. Children’s Environments, 264-270.
Clayton, S. (2007). Domesticated nature: Motivations for gardening and perceptions of environmental impact. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27(3), 215-224.
Gross, H., & Lane, N. (2007). Landscapes of the lifespan: Exploring accounts of own gardens and gardening. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27(3), 225-241.
Hoffman, A. J., Knight, L. F. M., & Wallach, J. (2007). Gardening Activities, Education, and Self-Esteem Learning Outside the Classroom. Urban Education, 42(5), 403-411.
Kaplan, R. (1973). Some Psychological Benefits of Gardening. Environment and Behavior, 5(2), 145-162.
Parrish, Deborah. (2009). “Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California.” Sierra Club. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from http://www.sierraclub.org/youth/downloads/outdoorschool_finalreport.pdf
Taylor, A.F., Kuo F.E. & Sullivan W.C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. Environment and Behavior 33(1): 54-77.
Wells, Nancy M. & Evans, G. (2003). Nearby Nature. Environment and Behavior 35.3, 311-330.
Helpful Resources Regarding School Gardens
Brynjegard, S. (2001). School Gardens: Raising Environmental Awareness in Children.
Parmer, S. M., Salisbury-Glennon, J., Shannon, D., & Struempler, B. (2009). School gardens: an experiential learning approach for a nutrition education program to increase fruit and vegetable knowledge, preference, and consumption among second-grade students. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 41(3), 212-217.
Priest, S. (1986). Redefining outdoor education: A matter of many relationships. The Journal of Environmental Education, 17(3), 13-15.
Saldivar-Tanaka, L., & Krasny, M. E. (2004). Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: The case of Latino community gardens in New York City. Agriculture and human values, 21(4), 399-412.
I would like to thank Project Dragonfly staff and students for their guidance and support throughout this experience. A big thank you goes to Piala’s Nursery in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Without your help, the garden would till be just an idea. I would also like to thank Aaron O’Connell, Spanish teacher at Waukesha South High School, for stumbling through this experience and never giving up on the dream of more green space for our community. Last, but not least, I would like to thank all of the Waukesha South Students who poured their hearts into making this dream a reality.