How to Start a School Garden: Fit to Learn Helps Teachers Plant Seeds for the Future

February 27, 2013

By giving children the opportunity to garden and experience outdoor learning, schools can boost physical activity, mental health and academic performance. Plus school gardens forge important links to surrounding communities while teaching life and career skills.

By giving children the opportunity to garden and experience outdoor learning, schools can boost physical activity, mental health and academic performance. Plus school gardens forge important links to surrounding communities while teaching life and career skills.

Last week, teachers from all over the city who are part of HSC’s Fit to Learn program focused on the hows and whys of starting school gardens during a fun and informative session at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Many local teachers shared the great results from their own school garden projects. Cecilia Ludvik, a physical education teacher and basketball coach at Dawes Elementary School on the far Southwest Side, said their garden wraps around the building and offers educational opportunities for all grade levels. The garden features custom-made raised beds so that students who use wheelchairs could garden alongside other classmates. Another teacher connected the school's  gardens with healthy fundraisers. There, the garden grows pumpkins, squash and other autumnal vegetables, which are then sold as part of a harvest festival fundraiser — a unique answer to the healthy fundraising guidelines in the Chicago Public Schools’ new wellness policy.

The core activity of the evening involved teachers breaking into groups and mapping out all the components needed to start a school garden. 

Erin McMillan, from the nonprofit Seven Generations Ahead, provided her expertise and gave three key steps for educators interested in bringing garden projects to their schools:

  1. Start talking to people about interest. Gather a thoughtful, committed team who will be in it for the long haul. Ask about each other’s interests and skills to determine the most effective roles for each person.
  2. Create goals and a timeline. There’s a lot to be done even before the first seed is planted. Establish smaller, gradual goals to more effectively and efficiently manage the tasks ahead.
  3. Find financial support. McMillan noted that Chicago is home to a number of organizations and local and community resources who are interested in promoting school gardens and could potentially assist with funding, as well as local, state and national grants. For a list of upcoming grants and opportunities, you can visit our website or subscribe to the Fit to Learn newsletter.

Team members from Seven Generations Ahead also noted that even schools in areas with contaminated soil, tight spaces, or predominantly indoor space have the capacity to create even a small garden. They suggested repurposing paint buckets, pickle jars, or other containers for raised or indoor gardens, as well as plants that would weather in them more effectively. They also suggested composting as an easy way to manage organic waste and get started, and seeking out local agricultural or horticultural resources for labor. 

Starting a school garden takes a lot of work, but as our Fit to Learn team learned, it sows the seeds for healthy students, a healthy school, a healthy community and a bright future. Thanks to all participants for making this an incredible day!