Printer Friendly

Cultivating math and science in a school garden.

Research indicates that providing instructional alternatives, hands-on activities, and rationales for completing tasks maximizes students' learning outcomes (Brooks & Brooks, 2001). Given the opportunities, children will choose to engage in outdoor before indoor tasks, perform hands-on and manipulative activities rather than complete worksheets, and associate with relevant and personal meaning as contrasted with the abstract or symbolic. However, teachers confronted with an overwhelming curriculum, a diverse range of student abilities and interests, and an intense pressure for students to score well on standardized tests are cautious when allocating the school day schedule and so choose proven instructional strategies. In fact, educators and students can have it all; the first decision is to extend learning to the outdoor classroom.

The Outdoor Classroom

In an effort to describe the unique qualities of outdoor play, Rivkin (1995) and Frost (2005) describe children experiencing a sense of transcendence. Frost describes this special play as allowing children to lose a sense of time, associate with risk or obsession, and engage in intense mental states: "The senses are heightened, consciousness is narrowed, self-consciousness disappears, and the person becomes absolutely absorbed in the activity" (p. 9). The outdoor environment invites naturalistic inquiry, ensures a range of observation and data collection opportunities, and provides aesthetic experiences (Burriss & Boyd, 2005).

Yet findings indicate that children spend more time than ever indoors, both during and after leaving school. The reasons for decreased outdoor time relate to physical safety, parents' schedules, and today's readily available technology (i.e., computer games, videos, and television). Less and less time is spent in the out-of-doors exploring, interacting, or even observing the natural world (Frost, Brown, Sutterby, & Thornton, 2004). In "Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive, and Evaluative Development," Kellert (2002) remarks that our society has become so estranged from nature that we fail to recognize our basic dependence on nature as a condition for growth and development.

Children need a variety of materials to personalize and mentally construct meaning. The out-of-doors is an extraordinary resource. It can be a learning center, a project-based station, and an area for reflection and observation. The outdoor classroom includes both man-made (picnic tables, gazebos, bird houses) and natural (dirt, rocks, trees) materials. The outdoor environment allows children to learn in ways not possible in the traditional indoor classroom.

The outdoor classroom is not isolated from indoor learning. Outdoor learning activities serve as an extension for academic subject areas; in the outdoors, children reinforce, apply, and enrich traditional skills. The outdoor classroom affords children unique opportunities to interpret, predict, and analyze information in meaningful contexts.


Theoretical Framework

The schoolyard is frequently overlooked as a place for academic learning (Moore & Wong, 1997). As urban communities enlarge and grow, schoolyards are becoming increasingly more urbanized as well (Chawla, 1994). Preparing the schoolyard as an outdoor classroom does not require a lot of money, time, or materials, however. Picnic tables and benches are versatile, birdhouses or butterfly bushes provide multiple observational and aesthetic opportunities, and an area designated for "chalk talk" invites literacy, formal games, and art activities.

Extending learning to the outdoor classroom allows children to experience math and science in a real-life context, as a natural part of their daily lives. The Curriculum Principle in Principles and Standards for School Mathematics reports that mathematics needs to be important and transferable to settings outside the class walls (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000).

Current research continues to validate the use of experiences in nature to increase both student learning and development. A pioneering 1998 study by Lieberman and Hoody examined using the environment as an integrating context for learning and found remarkable increases (73%) in the understanding of mathematical concepts and content, better mastery of math skills (92%), and more enthusiasm for studying math (89%). Using the school's outdoor environment in a learning context is not only easy to do but also makes sense monetarily (it is less expensive than taking field trips), in terms of increases in student knowledge gains, and, possibly most important, in facilitating student enthusiasm and attitudes toward learning.

About the Garden

In an effort to use the school grounds for experimental learning and to apply skills learned in the classroom, one school has developed an outdoor classroom in the form of a nature trail surrounding the school building. In 1995, teachers at Homer Pittard Campus School (HPCS) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, began to use their distinctive resources and talents to extend compacted dirt and concrete beyond its original design as a schoolyard. The areas they have developed around the building include an outdoor classroom and nature trail with such elements as an amphitheater, student workstations, a wetland, a greenhouse, a tracking pit, and a culinary herb garden. Figure 1 portrays a diagram of the garden at HPCS.

While all the children use each area of the garden, the herb garden is a particular focus for the kindergarten classes. The herb garden not only provides young children the opportunity to study annuals, perennials, and herbs, as well as insects, bees, and pollination, it also represents a natural method for meaningfully applying skills learned in the classroom. The herb garden culminates in the tasting of herb biscuits (see recipe in Figure 2).

Mathematical Activities in the Garden

The garden is used as a real-life context in which students can employ math skills. The activities done in the garden will be discussed for each of the following three standards in NCTM's Principles and Standards.

* Number and Operations: Children use numbers, including written numerals, to represent quantities and to solve quantitative problems, such as counting objects in a set, creating a set with a given number of objects, comparing and ordering sets or numerals by using both cardinal and ordinal meanings, and modeling simple joining and separating situations with objects.

* Geometry: Children interpret the physical world with geometric ideas.

* Measurement: Children use measurable attributes, such as length or weight, to solve problems by comparing and ordering objects. (NCTM, 2000, p. 12)

By using the garden as a context for learning mathematics, the children had the opportunity to connect the meaning of written numerals to the quantities of herbs planted and grown in the garden. Activities included counting the number of seeds to be planted, the number of plants that grew, and the number of herbs picked in the garden. Moreover, the students engaged in counting and fraction activities associated with the herb biscuit recipe (see Figure 2), and they could relate this quantity to its numeric representation. In the center of the garden (see Figure 1), the tall tree stump has a sundial on top, leading to discussions of Roman numerals and the real-life connections. The discussions included the history of various numeration systems, telling time in connection to the numerals and by the direction of the sun, and learning about how the sun was once widely used to keep time. Comparing and ordering activities included examining the amount of herbs produced by each plant and ordering the plants from most to least productive. Finally, common fractions (halves, thirds, fourths, etc.) were discussed when deciding how to divide the garden.

The garden offered many ways for the students to see geometry and measurement in a realistic context. The geometrical design allowed for students to explore and look for shapes. The garden itself was an eight-by-eight square with its diagonals marked by rectangular solid bricks. As described earlier, the center of the square housed a large tree stump that was flat on the top. Thus, with the bricks and stump in their positions, the garden was sectioned into four areas. Students engaged in math treks through the garden to identify multiple two- and three-dimensional shapes in spoken and written language. The measurement activities helped students develop concepts of length and volume. They also engaged in an ordering activity in which they placed the herbs in order according to their size. Some herbs were ordered based on length of the leaf and some by the volume of the plant.

Science Connections Made in the Garden The garden also offers teachers the ability to accomplish science standards. National Science Education Standards (National Academies Press, 1996) were used to select the activities. The science standards accomplished in the garden were as follows:

* Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

* Understanding about scientific inquiry

* Properties of objects and materials

* Position and motion of objects

* Light, heat, electricity, and magnetism

* Characteristics of organisms

* Life cycles of organisms

* Organisms and environments. (National Academies Press, 1996, pp. 105-106)
Figure 2
Herb Biscuit Recipe


* Cooking oil spray
* 2 cups self-rising flour
* 1/4 cup mayonnaise
* 1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped, or I teaspoon dried sage
* 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped, or I teaspoon dried thyme
* Dash of garlic
* 1/4 teaspoon of parsley
* 1/4 teaspoon of basil
* 1 cup milk


Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Spray cooking oil on cookie sheet.

Using a large dinner fork, stir together self-rising flour,
mayonnaise, sage, thyme, garlic, parsley, basil, and milk until

Drop dough onto cookie sheet, using a large serving spoon.

Bake in oven for 10-15 minutes.

Serve warm.

From the beginning of the year, young children learn through observations about the four seasons and their effect on the garden. Annuals and perennials, leaves, weeds, insects, bees and pollination are all part of these observations, further developing grade-appropriate exposure to scientific methods and procedures. For example, scientific classification skills are honed as students categorize their observations. These activities included locating, charting, and classifying herbs/plants in the garden, charting and classifying characteristics of organisms in the garden, and charting differences and similarities of the herbs/plants.

Inquiry was a key component of all activities involving the garden. Students explore the following questions:

1. What herbs/plants will grow the fastest, grow the tallest, grow the fullest?

2. What area of the garden will be the most productive?

3. How does exposure to sunlight affect the herbs/ plants?

a. Time exposed to sunlight

b. Direct versus indirect sunlight

Interdisciplinary Connections Made in the Garden

Journals and learning logs are used for recording observations, which are read as a class. Differences and similarities are discussed, including color, texture, smell, and individual care of the many varieties of plants. Each child paints a flat rock to assist in identifying the herbs and dividing the garden into sections. Children grow a variety of herbs throughout the year in the herb garden, thus providing for many cooking activities. Finding recipes, reading and following the directions, measuring ingredients, mixing student-grown herbs, and then cooking them all contribute to a special learning experience. Writing about this in journals, retelling experiences in class stories, and sharing yearly garden changes with other classes is learning at its highest and most enjoyable level. The yearlong project is celebrated with a Garden Party.

Reflections on the Garden

The herb garden experience was beneficial to the students not only in terms of achievement, but also motivationally. The children enjoyed the concrete opportunities provided in the out-of-doors; likewise, the teachers experienced a sense of excitement about teaching. In contrast with creating lessons in isolation to meet individual standards, teachers used the garden as an integrating context and effectively met curriculum benchmarks, supported students to experience success while taking standardized tests, and ensured differentiated instruction to accommodate children's interests and abilities.


Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (2001). In search of understanding: A case for constructivist classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Burriss, K. G., & Boyd, B. F. (Eds.). (2005). Outdoor learning and play: Ages 8-12. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Chawla, L. (1994). Editor's Note in Children's Environment, 3(11).

Frost, J. L. (2005). Introduction. In K. G. Burriss & B. F. Boyd (Eds.), Outdoor learning and play, ages 8-12 (pp. 9-12). Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Frost, J. L., Brown, P., Sutterby, J. A., & Thornton, C. D. (2004). The developmental benefits of playgrounds.

Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Kellert, S. R. (2002). Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development. In P. H.

Kahn & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature (pp. 117-152). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lieberman, G. A., & Hoody, L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as an integrating context for learning. San Diego, CA: State Education and Environment Roundtable.

Moore, R. C., & Wong, H. H. (1997). Natural learning: The life history of an environmental schoolyard. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.

National Academies Press. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: Author.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2007). Curriculum focal points: For prekindergarten through grade 8 mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

Rivkin, M. (1995). The great outdoors: Restoring children's right to play outside: Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Send Idea-Sparkers to: Sandra Stone ( and Basanti Chakraborty (
COPYRIGHT 2010 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Classroom Idea-Sparkers
Author:Winters, Jeremy; Ring, Tracey; Burriss, Kathy
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Previous Article:ACEI Election results for 2010.
Next Article:Making the most of your ACEI membership.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters