Natural Learning School: Down-and-dirty lesson offers more than garden-variety learning

By Kandra Kolehmainen

When you think of the ideal preschool and kindergarten, do you think of bright colors, interesting materials, lots of movement and children being creatively engaged? Do you see children learning best through hands-on exploration and believe that a creative and stimulating environment is a wonderful beginning to their education?

Not only do many people believe this is ideal, but education research supports it as well. However, when children are of elementary school age and academics take center stage, many of our views of a hands-on education change; we believe that children need to “buckle down” in order to learn academics. But children don’t suddenly learn differently when they reach elementary age, so why should our teaching change? As with people of all ages, children experience the greatest level of learning when they are highly interested and are provided a hands-on, experiential learning environment. The elementary school at the Natural Learning School is teaching all subjects in exactly this way.

At the Natural Learning School, we believe in a project-based education. Learning that takes place through a long term project is in-depth, analytical and creative. The questions and obstacles that arise are real, which not only allow children to solve problems, but also to apply their knowledge in a relevant way. This year, based on the interests of many of our students, we decided to grow a garden. We realized immediately just how all encompassing this could be; virtually every subject could be taught through the project. We then created a web (a flow chart) listing all of the subjects and skills that could be learned while planning, designing, growing and caring for the garden.

We introduced the garden by saying, “We’re going to see something really awful.” The children were very excited about seeing something awful at school. Although not really awful, the space was littered and unkempt and was in desperate need of cleaning, weeding and painting. Everyone realized the amount of transformation that was necessary to change this grass and concrete area into a beautiful garden. The excitement was overwhelming as were the myriad ideas that flowed from student to student.

The first step in the project was for the students to draw their dream garden; no boundaries, guidelines, or practicalities were to be considered. The garden designs were amazingly diverse: from fruit trees, butterfly gardens and caves to fountains, swirling paths and huts. But they also shared common elements that would eventually find their way into revised designs.

The students (along with their parents) cleaned up the space by mowing the grass, pressure washing and painting a concrete wall (of which they had painstakingly chosen the color), weeding and moving soil. The cleaned space was incredibly different and the students were astonished to see the difference their work had made.

Frequent visits to the garden and research inspired class discussions regarding sunlight, rain, the seasons, planting on concrete, soil types, plant hardiness zones and fall/winter planting. Keeping these and other factors in mind, the students reviewed each other’s designs while taking notes regarding their favorite and most necessary garden features. The students reviewed their notes and a list of the 20 most popular/important features was compiled (all done by majority voting). This list served as the basis for the next step: revised garden designs.

The revised design’s only parameter was to include the first seven items of our list in the designs. They chose their own mediums which included clay, colored pencils, Lego and a diverse group of found materials. The designs were both creative and realistic and showed a refined view of what was actually possible in the space.

A scale model of the garden was drawn by the students as were moveable garden features. Five small groups each created a final design, and then the class voted to select the one design which we would reproduce in the garden. This final design not only serves as the inspiration as we move forward, but was also submitted to Home Depot (which offers grants to schools who plant gardens).

One of the decisions that had been agreed upon was to plant flower bulbs in the grass, as well as a few winter vegetables. After much research, the students planted tulips, daffodils, lettuce and chard.  The tulip and daffodil bulbs also found their way into studio where the children made scientific drawings of both the whole bulbs as well as bulbs that has been dissected.

In true Reggio fashion, the project spread into many subject areas. One garden discussion unexpectedly turned to the issue of garden access, which became a social studies and logic activity. The students had very definite opinions as to whether the garden should be public or private. Teams Public and Private were formed. The teams met to share their individual opinions, and then each team decided  which points would effectively support their case. A formal debate followed, where, in the end, it was decided that the garden should be open to the public. Through the debate process, the children practiced public speaking, persuasive writing, critical thinking, forming logical arguments and the art of debate.

In language arts the student chose The Secret Garden for the class read-aloud selection. All of the students wrote garden poetry (including haiku, acrostic, rhyming couplets, free form), read gardening books and learned an amazing amount of garden-related vocabulary. They also wrote a garden-centered creative story and researched many appropriate project topics, which improved their critical reading, editing and note taking skills.

In math, students learned construction, shapes, measurement, area, perimeter, circumference, radius, diameter and Pi in addition to their individual math curriculum. Multi-step word problems were also given to stimulate critical thinking (If you have a flower bed that is 9 feet by 8 feet and your plants need 6 inches of spacing, how many rows will you have, and how many plants can you plant?).

In science, we learned about seasons, the effects of environment on plants and composting. We made a sundial, performed experiments to prove the necessity of sunlight and water, researched plants (viability, origins, history, planting techniques, environment) and discovered the importance of  photosynthesis, chlorophyll and plant sugar. The students also learned about the food chain, the environment, insects, the scientific method and variables in an experiment.

The first semester of our school year has brought to life how academics can be taught in a fun, interesting and relevant manner. Through hands-on, project-based learning, children are allowed to apply their knowledge in varied and meaningful ways. This is the key not only creating understanding now, but also the key to learning that lasts a lifetime.

Learn more about Cooper-Young’s Natural Learning School at

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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