Barriers, Strategies, and Resources to Thriving School Gardens

By Jack Orloff

School gardens engage our communities beyond the school through care and maintenance of the space, flourishing the landscape and relationships. The Reilly Mustang community embraced this concept through their Social and Emotional Garden, which opened its doors on Wednesday, May 26.

The garden features a play garden aimed to foster confidence and leadership through group play, a birds, bees and butterflies ecosystem to have students make connections to the larger system, and a meditative space for individuals to relax and connect with nature.

Learning Benefits
The warm sun illuminates an array of botanical flowers as sounds of children laughing and learning can be heard from the schoolyard. That is the scene at over 96 Austin ISD campuses with outdoor learning and school gardens that provide children an opportunity to learn in a hands-on and flexible environment. AISD, in a collaborative study with The University of Texas, researched some effects of school gardens contributing to the success of students in the district.

The research looked at how supporting school gardens can lead to a more hands-on, multifaceted educational environment that would enhance and foster nutrition behavior experiences in children of all ages. The key indicators in the success of a school garden include administrator support, teacher training, integrating school gardens into the curriculum, school garden leadership committees, and district support, including district-level financial support. 

The study utilized practitioner surveys to provide information on characteristics and observation by an expert panel to identify thriving gardens.

“School gardens add a lot of value to our schools,” said Outdoor Learning Specialist and co-author on the study Anne Muller. “They provide a context for learning, helping learning to come alive in a relevant way. For example, if you are learning about the parts of a plant, you can easily do that in a school garden where you can see, feel and maybe even eat the parts of a plant.”

There are 96 campuses with school gardens in Austin ISD and robust nature goals. The district nature goals intend to provide the AISD community with nature-based learning benefits, opportunities, and experiences to enhance resilient ecosystem services on AISD property and improve social, emotional, health, and academic outcomes for students. By researching and proving the positive effect of school gardens on our students, we can more effectively find funding, partnerships, and long-term sustainability for our gardens and campuses.  

Muller says that teachers and administrators are vital indicators of success.

“If a campus does not have a school garden committee or an administrator that is not engaged in prioritizing the use of the outdoor spaces, then it allows the teachers the opportunity to implement and effect change one indicator at a time,” said Muller. “This research has impacted the district and community by showing that administrator support is key to the success of a school garden.

Learning is not the only positive outcome of learning outside. Students learning in their school gardens are also more active, getting Vitamin D and building meaningful relationships with the outdoor space.  

The district recently embedded outdoor learning into their Educational Specifications, making gardens, outdoor studios, and other outdoor learning space types a requirement for all new buildings and modernization projects.  

“The commitment is strong to create green schoolyards with infrastructure that is embedded into the school and district culture so that outdoor learning spaces are as integral to the school as the indoor classroom,” Muller said. “We are working to embed outdoor learning opportunities into the district curriculum and are offering professional learning opportunities to support our teachers in integrating outdoor learning into their lessons.

For more information on the collaborative study with The University of Texas, please click here.