1 of 2
Photos by Erica Techo.
Left: Students stand around a garden patch with green beans at Riverchase Elementary School.
2 of 2
Students from Nicole Turner's first-grade class pick banana peppers in the garden behind Riverchase Elementary School.
In some ways, it’s like any other garden. Strawberries redden in the sun; kale opens its papery leaves; butterflies flit from one brightly colored flower to another. But the Riverchase Elementary School garden grows something much more vital and intangible than kale and squash.
Every semester, 16 classes sign up to spend 20 to 30 minutes once a week in the garden.
Students conduct experiments like planting plants on two different sides of the garden, one that receives more sun and one with more shade, and monitor the growth of both sides.
“They usually are a little reluctant at first and then they start to see things grow,” said fifth-grade teacher Abra Wallis. “After one weekend we came in and they could not believe how fast the stuff had grown. Then they really start to question.”
Gardening allows the students to experience hands-on learning, a central aspect of the new science standards.
“It’s one thing to see it in a book; it’s another to see it on a video; it’s another thing to go out and see and really get their hands dirty,” Wallis said.
However, the garden is not exclusively used for science class. Some students use math skills to calculate how many plants can grow per square foot. Sometimes classes write about their experiences in the garden or simply meet there to read. One class incorporated history by growing the “Three Sisters Garden,” based on an Iroquois legend. They also used engineering and problem-solving skills to construct an apparatus out of netting and PVC pipes to keep out geese and other creatures. The garden also teaches them about nutrition.
“Someone told me agriculture is a literacy,” Wallis said. “We teach kids how to read, and we teach them how to do math, but they don’t know where their food and their fiber come from, so it’s a literacy unto itself.”
At the end of each semester, students harvest what they’ve grown and throw a tasting party. Last year, they made pizzas with toppings from the garden vegetables. Leftover vegetables are given to the lunchroom or a local food bank.
School officials said they hope to obtain more grants for further improvements to the garden.
Patti Tanner, a counselor at Riverchase who helps oversee the garden, said she wants to look into potentially raising the beds to about the students’ waist, which would allow greater root development and the children to access the plants more easily. Wallis said she would like to experiment with hydroponics.
She hopes for some students, the garden will spark a lifelong interest.
“Fifth grade is one of those ages where I want them to start seeing some of their options for what they might want to do when they grow up,” she said. “There’s a lot of technology and science involved, so there’s a lot of ways to get the kids involved looking toward their future.”
Most importantly, the garden grows curiosity and an excitement to learn.
“The advantage is that they really start asking questions, like what is in soil, and then it branches out from there,” Wallis said. “Just to watch them question has been probably the biggest benefit … to hear them talk about the why and the how, that’s probably my favorite thing to hear them say.”