Throughout the 21st century, there has been a heavy focus on the incorporation of new and emerging technology in classrooms from K to grade 12. But with much to gain and benefit from technology, what do students lose as a result of this focus? With the benefits of new programs and applications, such as online collaboration and coding, also come drawbacks. Cyberbullying, overstimulation from social media, negative body image, lack of practical life skills and connection to the natural world—these are just a few. As an educator, I find I am constantly dealing with the relationship between teenager and smartphone in the classroom. What I wonder is, what am I doing, or not doing, to fully engage my students in a lesson or peer-facilitated activity?
As there are different approaches to teaching and different ways of learning, it is crucial to find the sweet balance between student, teacher, and means of learning. I propose that having an environment-centred approach to teaching may be a stepping stone towards a more inclusive and natural space for learning. Focussing on the environment in a hands-on project, such as in developing and maintaining a garden, brings new and refreshing perspectives to students. It may help them to associate school with a positive and inviting environment, and to learn how to navigate a natural space and discover new interests. The following are a few benefits of gardening with your students.
1. Creates more inclusive and accessible peer engagement
Gardening education practices are not necessarily centred around the anticipation of students growing up to be gardeners, but more focused on the interactions that take place in a garden. When working in a garden setting there is a significant amount of teamwork and collaboration involved. Here, students are placed in a non-traditional learning setting where verbal communication comes into play. Finding the right tools to communicate with their peers is crucial, and new relationships may emerge between students who typically do not interact with one another in a regular classroom setting. Here is where positive peer relationships can begin, with the potential for positive interaction and collaborations in academic settings.
Interacting with a new learning environment can cause one of two things to take place: students can be taken out of their comfort zone or can find their comfort zone. In both instances, students are given the opportunity to try something new, perhaps posed as a new challenge to rise up to or thrive in something that comes naturally to them.
2. Promotes environmental care and stewardship for nature and local community
From #FridaysForFuture to climate strike protests, we are living in the midst of adolescent environmental activism. Students have never been more passionate and emotionally charged about the environment and the negligence of political leaders. Although this may not be the case for all students, it is, nonetheless, important for educators to address environmental issues. As cliché as it may be, there is truth in the phrase “these kids are the future” and it is our collective responsibility to cultivate individuals to be well-rounded and informed. Gardening can be a practical way to focus attention on the environment. The end goal is not to hope that all students be as environmentally driven as Greta Thunberg (as wonderful and influential as she may be)—but to simply welcome students to understand the importance of living within a thriving and sustainable community. This appreciation for their environment does not have to be immediate and may take shape later in life, whether it be through gardening initiatives at home, up-recycling materials for other uses, shopping locally, or using a garden as a platform for community youth and adult engagement. It is never too early, or too late, for that matter, to infuse environmental care and stewardship into our teaching practices.
3. Encourages good mental health
There is nothing that compares to the feeling and sensation of being outdoors. Sitting in a classroom for hours each day, students are never exposed to sunshine and fresh air. What happens when educators break patterns and take their students outside? The benefits are immense. Using all the senses in an outdoor setting facilitates new connections and emotions that would typically not take place in a traditional classroom. The feeling of dirt between your fingers, the earthy smell of grass with dew, the sight of a bird feeding its young in a high-up tree branch—these all set the scene for positive mental headspace. Fostering these safe and meditative spaces for students allows for greater connections between nature, emotion, and learning.
Where to begin?
From new teachers emerging from teacher education programs to those with many years of experience, it is never too late to try new things. If you are the teacher who lacks confidence and is uncertain of where to begin, start small. Adopting gardening pedagogies can involve classroom projects or initiating small-scale school gardening initiatives. Collaborate with other educators and take on a multi-disciplinary approach to student-led projects. Reach out to local community centres and inquire about using a green space for educational purposes. From grades K to 12, students can immensely benefit from engaging in garden-related projects.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As a secondary school educator in Toronto, Selina Greco is interested in environmental education, social justice, and mental health. With an Honours Bachelor degree in Chemistry and a Masters degree in Education, her primary focus lies in environmental and sustainability education.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2021 issue.