Growing Student Engagement Through School Gardens

Jodi Crimmins


School chickens eating lunch scraps

Spring is almost officially here. As we make our way to the final push towards summer, how can we engage and refocus our students? By asking for their help and getting them outside!  School gardens offer students active learning opportunities that require critical thinking skills and creativity, and keeps them coming back for more!  

Why School Gardens?

Creating a learning garden at your school supports equity, giving all students context through experience.  Garden learning supports all of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices, and many Performance Expectations in Life Science as well as Earth and Space Science.  It frequently reinforces English Language Arts Standards as well.  Gardens support all speaking and listening standards as students work together to accomplish goals. They present opportunities to write informational text based on hands-on experience and research. Students can demonstrate understanding of vocabulary as they identify new words and put them to use in their descriptions and writing. They learn to collaborate with diverse partners and integrate their knowledge and ideas from both informational text and real world experience.

Common Core Math often focuses on real world problems, and the garden gives students an engaging lab for these studies. They see firsthand the relationship between numbers and quantities, classify objects, describe measurable attributes, estimate lengths, and measure.  They work with perimeters and polygons and convert different-sized standard measurements units within a given measurement system.  When planning garden spaces or cooking with garden grown vegetables these and other skills are naturally put to the test, offering students the chance to put their learning to practical use.  

Here are two examples of student-led projects for your outdoor spaces.

Vermicomposting4th graders composting their lunch

Using worms to compost food scraps from our cafeteria, known as vermicomposting, is one way we take action to reduce our carbon footprint. The whole process is a rich learning opportunity for students. My district is located on an island with a full landfill, making waste reduction a priority for our population. By educating our students on the necessity of reducing our waste, we challenge them to help us solve this problem. Led by students, teachers, and principals, our elementary schools have decided to reduce our waste by adopting hundreds of red wiggler worms.  We now have vermicomposting programs that began with students and requires focused, engaged student leaders to operate and maintain them.



The Compost process

  • Every day at lunch, student leaders monitor the compost buckets in the lunchroom to help students sort their lunch waste
  • 4th grade students take the compost buckets out to the garden where they dump the waste in our worm bins
  • The waste is covered with peat moss to prevent smell and pests
  • The buckets are rinsed and returned to the lunchroom
  • When our bins are full, a team 4th graders open the bin to encourage the worms to crawl away from the light
  • Students scoop the top layers of castings into a screen where they screen out the worm castings from the unfinished compost
  • This is added to the base of plants in their garden to provide rich nutrients to the soil.  

We have had visitors from other schools including superintendents, teachers and students come to learn from our student leaders. Through this project, our kids are becoming experts in speaking, listening, problem solving, critical thinking and of course, composting.  

Gaining hands on experience has helped our students in the classroom!  When they see the process of decomposition, or witness the lifecycle of a worm, their interest in these concepts increases as does their learning.  Students gain agency over their school, making their learning and their school garden theirs.  


Pollinator GardenChildren and volunteers building a pollinator garden

After studying about pollinator habitat loss, second graders decided to “save the bees” by building a 4’x8’ pollinator garden over pavement space with the permission of the school principal and grounds departments.  Students wrote a grant request to local lumber and garden stores and received donations for all of the materials. With volunteer help from the local Navy partners, second grade students built a garden bed from the ground up, provided drainage and soil, and planted a pollinator garden. Students saw firsthand how the concepts of area and perimeter worked, bringing in important math standards, and they showed up every day at recess to help weed and care for our space. The excitement was beyond compare when they found an actual pollinator in the garden!  

The sky's the limit for what projects you could engage your students in at your school.  There are a world of skills students can build while working outside toward a goal. Our students have gained meaningful connections to core content and standards while learning public speaking, advocacy, and boosting student’s engagement and confidence not to mention meaningful skills such as how to use a shovel or compost. I love taking my district curriculum lessons outside to our school garden and watch student engagement increase!

I am sure you are probably connecting a hundred other ways that having a student led garden project could help you engage your students. I would love to hear!  What are some ways you can take your class outdoors? Have you taught core curriculum outdoors, how? What would you like to try?

  • Next Generation Science Standards
  • Project Based Learning
  • School Gardens
  • Science
  • Student Engagement
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Jodi Crimmins Board

Elementary Garden & Sustainability Teacher on Assignment (TOSA), Oak Harbor Public School, Oak Harbor, WA