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Julia Hawes & Maya Linson/MEDILL

Many Chicago parents try to expose their children to local nature centers, such as the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

Ready, Set, Grow: School garden initiatives boost students’ health

by Julia Hawes and Maya Linson
March 12, 2009


 Maya Linson/MEDILL

To better understand open green space on school campuses, the Growing School Gardens task force surveyed the state of gardens that already exist at more than 300 Chicago public schools.


Maya Linson/MEDILL

The same task force survey also identified each type of existing garden.


Courtesy of Robin Carlson/Chicago Botanic Garden

Students at St. Monica’s Academy in Northwest Chicago learn about plant-based farming and nutrition as part of an interdisciplinary environmental curriculum developed by leaders from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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Art meets nature at local school garden

Upon approaching the Franklin Fine Arts Center, a K-8 school in Lincoln Park, visitors are greeted with a garden and colorful murals. In the spring, students can be seen sitting out front, drawing or reading as a class.

When art teacher Margaret Koreman joined the faculty three years ago, the Franklin community was hoping to enhance its site entrance, which is now flanked by an Asian-inspired garden. The “perfect triangle” was formed when a parent named Ellen Moderhack, a landscape architect, joined the community and the school received a grant from Openlands, a Chicago-based conservation organization, Koreman said.

With help from parents, Openlands, and the Franklin community, the school was able to produce an academic and artistic green space for students.

“All of us were there at the same moment and really believed in (the garden),” Koreman said. “Art and science go hand in hand, so this was a great opportunity for kids to look at the environment, recycling and tying the arts into nature.”

Parents, faculty and students work together to clean, dig and plant in the garden, which also serves as an outdoor classroom and includes a stage, reading circle, dry pond and Asian bridge. In warm weather, student-made art installations are placed around the garden, from quilts made of plants to tree decorations representing earth, air, fire and water.

Koreman often brings her students outside to draw and photograph the garden.

“You think kids are going to get wild,” Koreman said. “When you get them out there, they start focusing and relaxing. All of a sudden they forget about the time and their problems.”

This past winter, Koreman’s photography class inadvertently helped save the garden from local rodents, when students spotted rabbit scat among the plants. Openlands and the Lincoln Park Zoo worked with the school to rabbit-proof the garden.

Vandalism and year-round maintenance are challenges faced by any school hoping to incorporate a specialized green area on their campus. The school specifically worried about the art in the garden, fearing it might get stolen or damaged, but the community has respected the space, Koreman said.

“(Students) have a definite pride in their building, and the parents do as well,” she added. “Kids can’t wait to get outside. You hear them saying, ‘Can you believe this is in our backyard?’ Some of the kids live in apartments and don’t have opportunities to grow plants.”

Leaders at St. Monica’s Academy in Northwest Chicago, meanwhile, initially offered a town hall-style meeting to engage parents and community members when the school first proposed becoming an environmental academy, according to Anna Viertel of the Chicago Botanic Garden, who worked with the school.

“We addressed parents concerns and had an interface to talk about why it is we’re suggesting that changes get made,” Viertel said.

Like the Franklin community, parents at St. Monica’s voiced concerns year-round garden maintenance and rodents.

“We brought in experts to address questions like, ‘Why sustainability? Why plant-based farming?’ for people who weren’t sold on the idea yet,” Viertel said. “It’s not necessarily a shared value for 100 percent of people and it’s important to engage the conversation early on.”

The Franklin garden was made possible by extensive time and efforts from parent volunteers and Openlands staff, which would not necessarily be readily available to every school community.

But with proper planning and communication, Koreman said, other schools could—and should—create similar garden programs.

“It would benefit any school, just with this idea of getting kids outside to learn in a safe environment that’s beautiful,” Koreman said. “It’s like taking a field trip without filling out a permission slip.”

Local leaders have quietly been examining the use of school gardens to help nuture the minds and bodies of Chicago children.

The new initiative, spearheaded by Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Richard M. Daley's Office, aims to place working gardens in all city public schools by 2018.

Over half of all public schools in the city - more than 300 total - already have gardens, according to Suzanne Carlson, the environmental program manager for Chicago Public Schools. The 10-year working plan, outlined by the Growing School Gardens Collaborative, would expand that number to almost 500 outdoor learning landscapes, she said.

“Keeping (the gardens) and adding them is the challenge,” Carlson said. “If the passionate person leaves, they're not always maintained.”

The collaborative includes nonprofit, government and local education leaders. Together, the team is developing a forthcoming report detailing steps for instituting outdoor learning landscapes on campuses to help children connect and interact with nature.

The idea behind the initiative is that gardens help students interact with nature, a relationship that has been proven to enhance overall mental and physical health.

"The work that we've done on the effects of nature on people suggests that you really need it in your daily life," said Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kuo, who was not involved in the collaborative, said research suggests nature deprivation can lead to social, psychological and physical breakdowns.

"It would be very sad if we end up with these intensely urban centers that have no nature in them and all the nature is sort of left hidden," she noted.

In light of this type of research, the Mayor’s Office and Chicago Public Schools in April 2008 began planning the task force, bringing in specialists from diverse agencies, including the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the National Wildlife Foundation, Carlson said.

The final version of the proposal will be published this spring if approved by the Mayor’s Office, according to Carlson.

“Fundraising is what’s up next—we don’t want to over promise,” she added. “It’s going to require a lot of resources over the course of (the plan).”

The initiative calls for $18 million to fund garden construction and professional development, Carlson said, noting that teachers need to learn how to manage the gardens and best integrate nature into academic curricula.

Why invest in training?

Taking lessons from Chicago-area school garden programs they helped organize in years past, education and planning leaders at the Chicago Botanic Garden agree that professional development is key to maintaining successful school gardens.

"If you don't have professional development, the gardens (are) just not sustainable," said Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, director of the Botanic Garden’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

The key is "making sure that all of the people involved get the training they need to manage those (garden) systems well," said Anna Viertel, the Botanic Garden’s school gardening coordinator.

It's also important to ensure ample opportunities for professional development by "providing more holistic and concentrated attention at specific schools," said Eliza Fournier, the Botanic Garden’s manager of school and community gardening.

However, funding is a major barrier to garden adoption and maintenance, particularly with the current state of the economy, Fournier said.

So why invest in this type of plan?

“The school garden program is, I’d say, a very tried and true and tested element of schools that has a positive effect on kids,” said Melinda Pruett-Jones, executive director of Chicago Wilderness, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to enhance people's connection with nature. “It's not expensive to do and, when it's maintained by the kids, it's very rewarding to them.”

To further its core mission, Chicago Wilderness in 2007 created the No Child Left Inside initiative, which aims to reconnect children with nature. The organization has been working with Illinois leaders to adopt its Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which states children have the right to discover wilderness, plant a flower, explore nature in neighborhoods and cities, and experience other outdoor activities.

“It’s so important for kids to develop that connection with nature very early on because that’s what research shows leads to a caring attitude towards nature as they grow and develop,” said Pruett-Jones.

“When you think about how many hours they spend in school, to have a green landscape in that school, whether it’s the playground they play in or a learning garden, it has huge benefits for the kids now and huge benefits for nature in the future,” she said.

In approaching state leaders, Pruett-Jones said many immediately supported the Outdoor Bill of Rights, while Gov. Pat Quinn and Mark Miller, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, are starting to see its importance.

“For a long time it’s been dismissed or assumed that of course kids are getting outside, when in fact it’s really a pervasive problem,” she said. “In underserved communities, these kids may never leave their block, so how do we reduce those barriers so they can be in and around nature? A learning garden in their school might be a really important, safe way to do that.”

Andrea Faber Taylor, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worked with Kuo on studies examining the benefits of physical environments on human psychology, particularly in children.

Faber Taylor looked at Chicago public housing and found there were measurable differences between residents living in communities with greenery and in those without.

In particular, girls living in public housing with a “green view” had better concentration, improved academic performance and were more likely to seek long-term success instead of instant gratification, according to Faber Taylor.

When children had immediate access to green space, they were more likely to engage in creative play, which research suggests is “developmentally important activity," Faber Taylor said.

Kuo is currently examining how school green space can improve children's learning and academic achievement, in light of the general fatigue that accompanies the school day, Faber Taylor said.

“(Growing School Gardens) should - in theory - be supportive of their capacity to concentrate, if they have access to (nature) in their school,” Faber Taylor said. “It should potentially be restorative. When we use our directive attention, it fatigues the brain.”

But why invest specifically in gardens?

Although quantitative data may be limited, local leaders including those managing Chicago Botanic Garden programs are witnessing these benefits firsthand.

“Early childhood development benefits from wilderness and unstructured play in beautiful, natural environments,” Viertel said, adding that No Child Left Inside concepts are integral to Chicago Botanic Garden programs.

“The key about these programs is critically engaging kids,” Schwarz Ballard said. “Working with them to recognize their current environment, question that environment and work through that whole process," she said, helps to develop "a more respectful, well-informed individual. ”

Garden programs also prepare youth for jobs in the growing green-collar economy and empower students to take control when they otherwise would not have such an opportunity. This empowerment can stem from taking ownership of the garden, making personal choices about nutrition, finding new ways to relieve stress or making greater decisions as an adult in managing their communities.

According to Fournier, a city-wide school garden program is a lofty, but attainable goal. The key is to pay attention to different school cultures and capabilities, funding for programs, professional development, curriculum integration and maintenance to the space, she said.

“With attention paid to those things, it’s absolutely feasible,” Fournier said. “It’s how (those steps are) achieved that will determine if it is successful.”

“There’s meaning to be found in these programs in any type of school, in any type of community,” Viertel said. “I don’t think you can make the argument that there would be any place where this would be meaningless work.”