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'Garden activities afford opportunities for personal growth and academic achievement.'

"I can't wait to eat some vegetables!" and "We're glad that we have this food in our garden! We're thankful to be in school!" were only a couple of the exclamations made by students in Ms. Childers' first-grade class at Harvey Clarke Elementary School as they worked in their new garden classroom this spring.

There's a reason why school gardens are becoming ubiquitous across the country — learning in the garden cultivates the whole child. Garden activities afford opportunities for personal growth and academic achievement.

Garden classrooms are a living context to learn about cycles, interdependence, energy and resources, diversity, and sustainability. Students learn first-hand about nurturing and caring, stewardship and respect, beauty and life. They also learn practical skills such as mathematics, science, literacy and nutrition.

When connections with our natural world are established and nurtured, the learner's mind becomes centered, focused and eager to take on other areas of academia. Research shows that garden-based learning improves academic achievement, produces positive attitudes about health and nutrition, and enhances environmental literacy.

School gardens:

• Improve children's knowledge of nutrition and attitudes towards fruits and vegetables: Children develop a sense of pride for the foods they grow, and a more positive association to fruits and vegetables is cultivated.

• Increase interest in new foods: Growing and learning about new foods fosters healthy food experiments, especially when paired with cooking.

• Foster life skills: From working independently to collaboratively, gardening instills many life skills such as teamwork, self-understanding, leadership, decision-making, communication, problem-solving and volunteerism.

• Instill an appreciation for the environment and sense of place: Children experience first-hand life, nutrient and energy cycles. Developing an understanding of the world we live in provides a platform for caring for it.

• Teach lifelong lessons: Lessons and skills children learn from gardening are known to stay with children throughout adulthood. From appreciating nature to identifying seasonal vegetables and fruits, gardening provides lifelong benefits.

• Promotes cultural cohesion and understanding: School gardens can be places where differences are set aside as families of different backgrounds come together to share in the joy of growing, harvesting, and sharing food.

In addition to social, cultural, and emotional benefits, school gardens provide the platform for teachers to engage students in interdisciplinary and hands-on learning.

Literacy: From reading informational materials such as seed packets and reference books to writing poetry or short stories about and inspired by the garden classroom, opportunities for enhancing literacy skills are abundant.

Mathematics: Measuring seed depth and spacing; calculating production rates; graphing germination rates, temperatures, growth rates, and weather patterns are only a few of the possibilities for children to apply math skills to real-life scenarios.

Science: Many consider school gardens to be a "living laboratory" where children are naturally motivated to engage in scientific inquiry. Children can apply scientific principles to design and articulate the scientific method, form hypotheses, test theories, document the process and outcome, and form conclusions according to evidence.

Through a collaborative effort between EdenAcres Environmental Education, Dairy Creek Community Food Web, Forest Grove Schools, Forest Grove Sustainability Commission, Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom, Oregon Department of Education, Pacific University, and many community volunteers and local businesses who have donated to the cause, we have nearly accomplished the goal of a school garden classroom in every school in the Forest Grove School District. With only two schools to go, we are confident that by 2020 every child in the district will have access to a learning garden classroom at their school.

Fallon Harris is executive director of EdenAcres Environmental Education. She lives in Forest Grove.

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