Gardens of learning

Want to teach your child healthy eating habits, respect for the great outdoors, responsibility and cooperation? Then get them into a garden, say Chicago area educators.

With childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes reaching epidemic levels, healthy eating and outdoor exercise is more important than ever. Since children are inclined to eat—or at least try—fruits and vegetables they grow themselves, gardens are the front line for nutrition education, says Jean Saunders, school wellness director for the national Healthy Schools Campaign in Chicago.

Plus it’s easy to connect academics to the garden, says Jaime Zaplatosch, education coordinator for Openlands, a nonprofit that preserves, protects and enhances open space in northeastern Illinois. A native plant garden, for instance, is the perfect setting to begin teaching fourth-graders Illinois history.

Learning by doing"makes a huge difference in what students take away long term,” Zaplatosch says. Digging in soil and exploring it up close is"very different than looking at a diagram in the classroom.” Math, creative writing, social studies, observation and journaling and the fine arts all have applications outdoors.

Working in a school or community garden also is a memorable experience for families, says Ann Goldbach, principal at Woodland Elementary School in Gages Lake. It shows children"when you get a group of people together a lot can be accomplished.”

At Woodland Elementary, for example, students see firsthand where food comes from and that they can change their community, Goldbach says. In the past two years, the students have donated more than 1,400 pounds of vegetables to the Warren Township Food Pantry.

With the impact on academics and increased focus on getting children more in tune with nature at earlier ages, it’s no surprise interest in school gardens is growing across the area. In fact, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s office began an initiative last year to create a garden at every Chicago Public School in an effort to produce eco-literate students.

No experience necessary

Sound like a good idea? You don’t have to be an expert gardener."Going through the learning process with your child is just as rewarding as anything else,” says Zaplatosch."Gardens are relatively forgiving.”

Starting a school or community garden from scratch is work but worth the effort.

First, work with teachers and administrators to develop a garden they will want to spend time in, so it becomes part of their lessons. The options are endless and include reading and living-history gardens, urban farms and habitats for butterflies, birds and pond dwellers. To build community, a garden might offer local residents their own plots to tend.

If asphalt surrounds your school, grow vertically with trellises, use containers and window sills or hang upside-down tomato plants from the building, says Beth Drucker, a parent volunteer at Hillcrest Middle School in Wilmette. Hillcrest’s native prairie garden is popular among students—each day, more than 120 fifth- and sixth-graders spend their 20-minute recess exploring and working in the garden."We run out of work before we run out of kids eager to do it,” she says.

Chicago Botanic Garden and Openlands can help facilitate the process of creating a garden and mini-grants are available to fund garden construction.

But one point on which everyone agrees: Start small."Create a culture around the garden before expanding it,” says Jennifer Schwartz Ballard, director of the Center of Teaching and Learning at Chicago Botanic Garden.

Water, water everywhere

Don’t run the water while you brush your teeth or shave. Only run full loads in the dishwasher or washing machine. Take a slightly shorter shower. On average, for every 12 seconds you take off your shower you save a whole gallon of water.

Get more dirt

Find community gardens and school garden resources at these Web sites:







Anne Nagro of Gurnee is the author of Our Generous Garden (Dancing Rhinoceros Press), a true story of children who plant a school vegetable garden and donate 900 pounds of produce to their local food bank. The book is available at and

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