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4 learning lessons from the garden - SmartBlog on Education 5.21.2014

Spring is in full bloom, and for many of us that means a reunification with our gardens. If you enjoy working in the outdoors as much as I do, you will likely spend an inordinate amount of time around your home doing everything from planting colorful blooms to weeding and maintaining your plush lawn.

My time outside gives me much opportunity to think and reflect. As an educator, a few ideas come to mind. The first relates to the eighth identified intelligence – naturalist intelligence — from Howard Gardener’s famous list. In its most literal terms, a naturalist is someone who shows expertise in the recognition and classification of plants and animals. From an educational vantage point, it describes a child who possesses naturalist inclinations while sharing many traits of kinesthetic learners. These children flourish from being able to touch, feel, hold and try practical hands-on experiences, but generally prefer to do so outdoors, surrounded by nature and animals.

As with some other forms of intelligence — musical and intrapersonal are two that come to mind — the naturalist learner is at a decided disadvantage in the conventional classroom. Little instructional time today is used to connect children to the great outdoors, particularly in schools that are located in colder climates or the inner city. Part of that is logistical, as not every school is positioned to promote outdoor learning. Part of this may be attitudinal, as if learning were meant to occur exclusively in a classroom. Regardless, it’s a shame that more of our children do not receive the opportunity to engage more with nature, particularly with a directed learning focus.

As an elementary grade student I was enrolled for three years in an “alternative” learning program. We performed fewer academic activities than our peers and spent more time engaged in vocational ones. Our class baked, dyed wool, did woodwork and spent many hours in the park, playing, learning and digging up worms under clumps of earth. Whether or not these experiences helped me in the classroom, I recall them fondly and have used many of the skills that I developed during these years long beyond my time in the program.

Teachers who are not inclined to spend meaningful time outside can still help their naturalist students thrive. Some instructional strategies for the naturalist intelligence include having students collect data, observe nature, categorize objects, classify information, care for pets and study books about nature.

Another idea that came to me while laboring outside is metaphorical. Different aspects of the gardening experience conjure up key aspects of child growth and development.

  1. Not every bulb shines immediately. There is little that excites the home gardener more than watching daffodils, tulips and other spring flowers emerge from the ground following a long, cold winter. Of course, in order for bulbs to bloom in April they must be planted properly the previous fall. Bulbs teach us the benefit of an early sow and of abundant patience. For a child to emerge as an accomplished learner, we must take the necessary steps to help her achieve success. We must lay the foundation and plant early. We have to know that we will not always see the results of our efforts right away; oftentimes, the fruits of our labor will not be discernible for many months (if not years). Still, in order to reap the beauty of a spring bloom, we must be willing to make the initial effort and then stand back and watch the children blossom.
  2. Weed out the roots. Perhaps the least enjoyable part of gardening is weeding. Weeds are unpleasant to look at and crash our “garden party” by showing up without invitation and spreading their unsightly wings wherever they can. The only way to rid your garden of weeds — chemicals notwithstanding — is to rip them out from the root up. A surface cut may help for the short term, but the weeds will return so long as their root structure remains intact. As teachers, we often experience something similar. Poor student performance or disruptive conduct may take the form of an external issue, such as meanness, lack of discipline and poor concentration. Most often, there is something deeper that is affecting student achievement and conduct, including un-engaging instruction, trouble at home or low emotional intelligence. In order for us to be successful with our struggling students, we need to be able to “root out” the source of the problem, either on our own or with the help of our colleagues and educational partners.
  3. Garden early and often. Gardening is not a one-and-done exercise. It requires continued oversight and care. Without such regular efforts, the wild nature of grass, shrubs and the like will quickly lead to your garden to take on the appearance of an unkempt, unsightly prairie. The connection to child raising should be plain enough. Our children require continued love, care and oversight. While they need to be given space to grow, they must also be kept from growing wild. Sometimes, this oversight feels unpleasant. Yet, we know that for children to achieve their growth potential they must be given guidelines and boundaries that will offer them the directed focus and discipline.
  4. Expose to sunlight. Sunlight is a necessary component for all vegetation, even for species that thrive in shade. Without ample exposure to the sun, plants cannot access the nourishment that they need to grow and thrive. Metaphorically, sunlight symbolize attention and love. Students need these ingredients in abundance if they are to reach their potential. Even students who seem to prefer the shade and keep themselves distant still want to know that someone cares about them and is available when needed.

While there are certainly many other connections that link garden and classroom, I believe that this list, coupled with a new-found desire to meet the needs of our naturalist learners, can help us achieve maximal results for the balance of the school year and beyond. Happy gardening!

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