Garden educator Nathan Larson believes in creating hands-on learning experiences for students of all ages. Author of the new book, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-based Education, he provides a practical guide to help fellow instructors to create programs and curriculum dedicated to connecting students with nature through the cultivation of green space. By planting vegetables and watching them grow as a natural part of the school day Larson believes that students can be encouraged to not only become stewards of the environment but also to learn valuable social skills.
Beautifully illustrated by Becky Redelings the book offers a series of anecdotal observations that demonstrate the real-world impressions left on the minds of young people. Backed by the scientific findings of Alex Wells and Sam Dennis, researchers at the University of Wisconsin Environmental Design Lab, Larson grounds his education philosophy in the unassailable truth of pragmatic methods meant to teach children how love and take care of the fragile yet resilient world in which they live.
I had the opportunity to meet Nathan Larson and ask him a few questions about his work to induce children to nature through gardening.
The Joy Trip Project:
How did you first come to realize that outdoor classrooms and gardens could have such a profound effect on early childhood education
I think for all children a lot of the magic and power of the garden is in relationships, the relationships that children form with the plants, with animals or just being outdoors, the connection to the land. And for young children I think that’s especially powerful. The world is just so full of magic and wonder at that age, so the discoveries in a garden are just very powerful, whether that is discovering an insect on a plant or seeing that a plant, that they had planted is starting to put out new leaves or had started to grow a flower. Gardens are such rich sensory environments. This age group I think really responds to that.
Is there anything inherently different about the garden classroom experience compared to a traditional sit-down learning environment?
Yes, it’s an unpredictable learning environment. I wrote about this in the book, the idea of a teachable moment. The garden is an environment rich with teachable moments. When I’ve worked with teachers doing professional development courses that’s one of the things I really think about. In a classroom you have a lesson plan. You have a lot of control over how that might go. In a garden you can prepare a lesson plan but something completely unpredictable can happen, such as when a red tail hawk flies through and lands nearby. That’s powerful and students want to learn about it because they have curiosity. It’s important to have a dynamic teaching style that allows for that and encourages those moments so that students are responding to an environment that is living and breathing around us. The environment is out of our control and that’s a very important lesson for all of us to learn.
Was there anything in the earliest days of your work that particularly surprised or amazed you?
I’ve worked with students in elementary school, in middle school, in high school and college and I’ve always been amazed by how the garden offers similar things to all those different ages. It’s a skills-based environment and it’s just so cool how you have a high school student and an elementary school student and they’re learning similar things and they’re surprised by the same things. It’s a powerful enter-generational learning environment. I don’t think I ever expected that. Different ages can learn similar things in the garden and it can be just as profound for a second grader as a sophomore in high school. The layers of mentorship that can be built in the garden and cooperative intergenerational learning process is really cool!
It might be said that the outdoors or tactile experiential learning isn’t for everyone. What is your advice to educators and students to at least give it a try?
First I’d say that is has to be a safe environment. It think it’s important for educators to make sure that students feel safe there and I think part of that is having multiple ways to connect. It doesn’t have to be that everyone has to put a plant in the soil if students don’t feel comfortable touching the soil initially. For example some of our learning is team-based so that one student might dig a hole in the ground. Another student will put the plant in the ground and another student will water it. So there are multiple ways to be part of that planting process based on what you will feel comfortable with. There are so many ways to be connected with the garden like listening to bird songs or closing your eyes and feeling the sun on your face. There are a lot of ways of having a tactile experience in the garden where you feel comfortable and they’re coming to it because they want to and we’re just supporting that process as opposed to them being told to do something, which would have a negative effect on creating a safe learning environment. The challenge of being a garden educator is how to make the experience safe and supportive and still encourage your students to stretch themselves or try new things, to experiment.
What do you hope will come of your book? How do you think it can best be used as a practical guide to get kids learning outdoors?
There are a lot of good “how-to” books out there to teach you how to start a garden. But this book is really more about a philosophy of teaching. What I really hope is it will be a way to build this conversation, that it gets us to start thinking about the best practices of a garden-based education. I think it would be great if we could get this community of educators to start thinking about our guiding principles. There is research that shows this is effective education. But the practice-based evidence is an approach to teaching that we’ve learned through our work in the field. So from years of refining and experimenting and working on particular types of methods we know that this really works. I hope that this book helps us build a body of practice-based evidence because I think it’s helpful to all of us when we hear these stories about a really powerful experience of childhood in the garden and a certain teaching method that somebody used that was really effective.
Nathan Larson is the education director of Community Ground Works at Troy Gardens and an Honorary Research Fellow at The Environmental Design Lab of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His book Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-based Education is available in print or as a free electronic download online. Just Click Here!
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