Just beyond the back entrance to Dunn’s Corners Elementary School in Westerly sit nine raised-bed gardens, one for each of the school’s grade levels to plant, maintain, harvest and study, plus a few extras filled with butterfly bushes and other perennials designed for lessons about pollinators. The gardens are an outgrowth of the school’s efforts to expand its science instruction.

The garden at Dunn’s Corners is one of dozens of school gardens being established throughout the region to help teach lessons in mathematics, environmental science, social studies, technology and many other topics. “A lot of our science curriculum deals with nature and the outdoors, and the garden is a natural extension of our class work,” says third grade teacher Kym Bontempo. “Rather than being taught about plants and nest building, we’re helping our students discover it for themselves. We’re building on their knowledge of the natural world and helping them form a relationship with nature. We’re bringing science concepts to life.”

According to Vanessa Venturini, the leader of a statewide school garden initiative and coordinator of the University of Rhode Island’s Master Gardener Program, the next generation of science standards encourages the use of “authentic learning experiences,” and school gardens are increasingly being used in that capacity. “It’s a living laboratory for the kids to use as a place to observe natural processes, to learn where their food comes from, and to learn other scientific concepts in the real-world environment,” says Venturini, who provides URI Master Gardeners as mentors at area schools.

Dunn’s Corners was an early advocate for school gardens, having constructed theirs more than six years ago. Today it is used extensively by nearly every teacher. It’s a quiet space where classes read together or complete writing assignments, where the art teacher encourages students to explore their creative side, and where hands-on lessons about Native Americans, weather forecasting and natural history come alive. “It might feel like play to my students, but they’re getting first-hand learning experiences,” Bontempo says. “I love to see their enthusiasm. They’re connecting with nature, and they’re applying the skills and ideas they’ve learned in class.”

Donna Lico was motivated to start a garden at Exeter-West Greenwich Junior High School because of her personal love of gardening and her growing interest in permaculture – sustainable, small-scale food production – including the idea of planting what she calls “a food forest.” Now the seventh and eighth grade students she teaches are reaping the benefits. “The long-term goal is for students to understand that growing food doesn’t have to be labor intensive,” she says. “We’re creating micro-ecosystems in the garden so everything benefits everything else. Everything will thrive better if there’s a well thought out mixture of plants.”

The garden was started two years ago with the planting of seven pawpaw trees, followed by construction of a spiral herb garden and the planting of clover, which adds nitrogen to the soil. A wide variety of flowering perennials with edible, medicinal and pollinator properties were added last fall. This spring Lico and her students will add a vegetable garden, and eventually more fruit trees for the food forest. “Students love coming outside to work in the garden for 25 minutes at a time,” she says. “They’re much more aware now of the different types of leaves, which they use to help identify the different plants.”

At Hamilton Elementary School in North Kingstown, parent Nicole Swanson is leading the effort to establish a school garden, and she is getting support from the whole community. She and a handful of other parents built the first two raised beds, then several more raised beds were donated by the North Kingstown Food Pantry, which was the beneficiary of the garden’s first harvest. Soil was donated by local landscaping companies, and many others in town help to maintain the garden through the summer months. “I try to keep the students involved with the gardens as much as possible,” Swanson says. “When they go out for recess or at lunchtime, many of them make their way over to the garden to help water and weed it.”

She says the students especially liked the idea of planting a pizza garden – tomatoes, peppers, basil, parsley and oregano. And this year, almost every student will have their own square foot of gardening space to design and plant themselves. “What I love the most so far is that our group of students with disabilities, who learn mostly through their senses, are able to get out there and get their hands in the soil, pull parsley and smell it. They get so much out of that experience,” Swanson says.

There is no doubt in her mind – or in the minds of any of the teachers who use a school garden as an outdoor classroom – that gardens are an ideal learning environment. “I don’t need a pen and paper test to tell me that learning is happening in the garden,” says Bontempo. “I can see them learning, marveling, asking questions, wondering. That, to me, is thrilling.”

Lico agrees. “I like the idea that someday some of these students will remember having done this in school and will develop an interest in doing it for themselves as adults.”

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