Like bees to honey, kids and dirt are inseparable – and teachers across the country are turning that impulse into an educational one.
School gardens have become so popular that an Ottawa-based charity launched a school garden network Tuesday, complete with case studies, lesson guides and rabbit-proofing advice for teachers. The launch comes weeks after Manitoba completed its first survey of school gardens, and professors from two Ontario universities initiated research into the learning potential of some seeds and a patch of dirt.
Little is known about the number or type of school gardens in Canada, but researchers and policy makers are working to catch up to a movement that has been quietly growing over the last decade. They believe that local food campaigns, neighbourhood greening projects and a new emphasis on environmental sustainability in school curricula could be behind the trend.
Maurice DiGiuseppe, one of the Ontario professors, has noticed a shift: School gardens used to be more common in elementary schools and they were filled with decorative plants and flowers. But he's seeing more and more high schools growing produce and herbs in courtyards and greenhouses.
"What they're starting to change into now is not just plants and greenery for aesthetic or environmental purposes," said Dr. DiGiuseppe, a member of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology's faculty of education. "We're starting to see more gardening for educational and social purposes."
It was about five years ago that the trash-ridden courtyard at Windermere Secondary School in Vancouver was turned into a garden. The school now has 13 plants beds, a greenhouse and an aquaponics system – a mini nutrient recycling system filled with plants and fish that comes in handy each semester when a new batch of Grade 10 science students get to learn about the nitrogen cycle.
Some of the produce – tomatoes, kale, garlic and basil, among others – is served in the school cafeteria. In the spring, students raise money for supplies by selling seedlings to teachers.
Henry Lau, a Grade 12 student at Windermere, spends nearly every school day in the garden.
"I've grown pretty attached to it," the 18-year-old said. "It's definitely nice to get your hands dirty."
When Mr. Lau first started at Windermere, he says he didn't know anything about gardening, but this fall he'll enter his first year at the University of British Columbia's food nutrition and health program.
It can be a struggle for schools to get a garden started, according to Tim Woods, executive director of Nutrients for Life. His charity is the one that recently launched a school garden network.
The site offers solutions to the most common problems teachers face, including how to ensure all the plants don't die over the summer holidays.
Many teachers make a case for helping a generation who are spending too much time indoors get a little dirt beneath their fingernails. But research suggests that contact with nature improves attentiveness, retention of curriculum and emotional development. Gardens also fit neatly into the latest pedagogical trends, including experiential and play-based learning.
Friday morning, kindergarten students at Winchester Public School in downtown Toronto dashed between mint, zucchini and tomato plants. They collected samples of important parts of a garden in resealable bags.
Five-year-old Niya Ibrahim was filling her bag with dirt when she spotted a snail on a wooden garden post.
"I've never touched a snail before," she said.
Niya lives on the eighth floor of an apartment building and has never had a garden of her own, but she had lots of ideas about snail ecology. "Is it like a worm? Does it clean the dirt?" she said.
Her teacher, Kim Atwill-Bradbury, says this experience-based kind of learning makes a big impression. She lets their curiosity and their imaginations guide them, and then brings them back to the classroom for a lesson.
"It's a way to make teaching more authentic," she said.