This article was originally written as a collaboration between the Ypsilanti District Library and the Ypsilanti Community Schools. It was published in the library’s newsletter, The Loop, which features news and events from the library as well as public agencies around the Ypsilanti area. The Loop is mailed to every home in the library district three times per year. It is reprinted here as part of a partnership between On the Ground Ypsilanti and The Loop.
Walking the halls of Ypsilanti Community Middle School, students look out the window at a courtyard. In early spring, there doesn’t seem to be much happening there, but as the weather warms, this courtyard becomes a vibrant outdoor classroom.
Two decades ago, it would have been surprising to see a whole classroom of kids out planting seeds or harvesting tomatoes, but today the trend of gardens in schools is exploding across the country, and Ypsilanti is no exception. Every school in the Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) system has an on-site garden, as does each branch of the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL).
“Gardens are an opportunity for students to get hands-on learning experience,” says Jen Sopoci, school garden coordinator for YCS. “There are countless ways to use it in the curriculum. Science is the biggest tie-in – we use the gardens to study earth science, soil science, and water science. But teachers are able to tie in math for calculating soil volume and seed spacing, language arts in learning vocabulary, and art projects like making signs for the garden beds.”
Ethan Lowenstein is an Eastern Michigan University professor who leads the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, a group that trains teachers to use experiential education in their classrooms.
“I think the research is really clear that when you make learning authentic to students – when learning is linked to something meaningful that has applications in the real world – you see academic gains,” Lowenstein says. “What that means for the teacher is that they have to analyze the potential to use the garden to reach academic goals. So if you’re looking for literacy, younger students might be reading seed packets and labeling beds. Older students are cooking and reading recipes. A lot of classes also do journaling.”
Lowenstein notes that at Ypsilanti Community High School, some of the garden clubs maintain rain gardens. The gardens are the focus of a six-week curriculum where students do research and solve real problems.
“Students are looking at water flow and what areas are getting flooded, and then designing and planting rain gardens in collaboration with the Washtenaw County Water Resources commission office. They did a rain garden tour to see other examples and decided what to do in their own gardens,” he says.
Sopoci also observes that going outdoors can have a positive impact on student behavior. She gives an example of preschoolers at Ford Early Learning Center, who visited the garden with clipboards to draw pictures of the signs of spring.
“These kids who are usually so energetic sat there and worked intently and quietly,” she notes. “They loved having the freedom to look around and find something that interested them.”
Lowenstein has also connected outdoor education to social and emotional skills.
“Getting into nature supports sensory integration, and helps kids learn emotional regulation,” he says. “That might not look like it’s academic on the surface, but builds really important skills that help students succeed.”
Studies have shown that students who participate in school garden programs improve academically because of the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning and spend time outside. But garden programs have seen more benefits, as growing and learning about food helps students develop healthy eating habits.
YDL’s gardens build nutrition and healthy eating into many of their programs and incorporate cooking classes for teens and tweens.
“We designed it as a salsa garden,” says Molly Beedon, who runs garden programs at YDL’s Whittaker branch. “We chose vegetables that went well together and that could be eaten either raw or cooked, which gives us lots of options.”
The YDL-Whittaker garden will expand to add new raised beds this year, thanks to two grants totaling $2,000. The other two libraries have had active vegetable gardens for years, and YDL’s Michigan Avenue location also hosts a pollinator garden featuring bee- and butterfly-friendly plants. Garden to Table programs will be held after lunch at both the YDL-Whittaker and YDL-Michigan locations.
If anyone truly understands the value of educational gardens, it’s the students who learn there. Estabrook fourth-grader Axel Raul Flores says, “Garden club is awesome! We get to be outside and make our school look nice by planting things.”
Gillian Ream Gainsley is the Ypsilanti District Library’s communications and development coordinator and a member of the Ypsilanti Community Schools Board of Education.
Photo courtesy of Ypsilanti District Library.