Lessons from a super school garden

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By Laura Bickle
Posted: May 2014

Imagine what your schoolyard could become, with smart planning and partnerships

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Gardens can take learning outside the classroom.

If a school garden evokes images of a couple of rows of carrots, then the EcoSchoolyard garden at James Robinson Public School (JRPS) in Markham, Ont., will knock your socks off.

The schoolyard includes a wheelchair accessible sensory garden, an outdoor classroom, wooden stage, paved learning trails and three curriculum-based food gardens — and it’s not even finished yet!

JRPS serves students from junior kindergarten to grade eight. It is an integrated school, with many of its students having mobility, physical, vision, emotional or developmental challenges. Jeanette McLellan, a special education resource teacher, joined the school 2010. As she did in four previous schools, she set her sights on improving the schoolyard.

She shares her tips for growing a successful school garden:

Involve everyone in planning: JRPS established a committee that included staff, parents (one of whom is a landscape architect) and neighbours. And the students contributed their ideas. Once a number of viable configurations of the yard were determined, all stakeholders were asked to vote on their preferences by putting stickers on pictures.

Have a solid plan: “You need a well thought-out plan,” says McLellan. “It helps keep you focussed.” At JRPS the committee developed a 10-year plan, which will be completed in 2020 and includes community garden plots, a fitness trail and accessible play structures. Once the plan was approved by the school board, the committee then used it to approach donors, including community organizations and retailers.

Make it relevant: The food gardens reinforce concepts the students are learning in class. For example, the gardens were intentionally built in geometric shapes. “They provide an authentic educational experience. I have seen the kids run out and snack on parsley and chives from the garden, bragging to their friends,” says McLellan. The school social worker often takes students who need a break from their desks into the therapeutic sensory garden. “It is a vehicle for conversation,” she adds. The sensory garden also serves to teach concepts such as short/long, soft/prickly, weight and colours.

Find partners: One of the school’s partners is Seeds for Change, a community organization that helps create healthier neighbourhoods through school and community gardens. They provided financial support, advice and a volunteer garden coordinator, who visits regularly, teaches skills and helps the students plan their gardens. McLellan also suggests looking into government programs and corporate opportunities: JRPS received funding through an environmental sustainability fund run by their municipality, and partnered with Home Depot, which assisted in construction and supplied materials.

Share: Allowing other to use the garden entrenches it in the community. The JRPS schoolyard is used for summer camps and has recently been approved for eight community food garden plots that will be used by various groups. Extra food is donated to the local food bank.

Encourage volunteering: Upkeep is vital to the garden’s survival. Robinson parents sign up to water in summer and several neighbours have volunteered as well. They have also recruited former students who are now in high school and looking to get community service hours.

Choose plants wisely: Plan crops and flowers based on when they will bloom and ripen and avoid invasive plants such as mint. And keep an eye out for unique opportunities: James Robinson has also planted a number of trees, several of which were rescue trees from road expansions.

Don’t stop dreaming: Next up at James Robinson is the installation of rain barrels. And they are having a fundraising concert on their outdoor stage featuring Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Hines (at the school on May 22). “Food gardening is more than promoting healthy living choices at JRPS, it is about engagement and community development at many levels,” says McLellan.

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