How to Grow an Outdoor Classroom


By Anne Nagro

As outdoor classrooms, school gardens offer countless opportunities for experiential learning.  Creating one doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process.  Here are some tips to help get your school garden growing:

1.    Enlist Advocates

Pull together a group of like-minded teachers, administrators, parents and students.  The most successful school gardens are founded on a broad community.

2.    Define Your Garden Goal

What do you hope to achieve with your outdoor classroom?  Will it be a place for quiet reading, teaching history, science or healthy eating?  Knowing this will help guide you in deciding the type of garden to create, such as native plant, water, edible, butterfly or natural habitats. 

3.    Evaluate Your Site

Most gardens require six to eight hours of sunlight each day and should have easy access to a water spigot.  Shaded areas are better suited to woodland gardens and natural habitats.  Wet areas might be a good spot for water runoff or pond gardens. Don’t be discouraged if your school is surrounded by asphalt or questionable soil.  Many schools find success with rooftop or playground gardens using containers, and even hanging basket or “windowsill” gardens. 

4.    Tie in Existing Curriculum

How will the outdoor classroom support your school’s curriculum and help meet state standards?  What best translates to learning-by-doing?  Plant life cycles, seed germination and environmental sciences are easily taught in the outdoor classroom.  So are math, creative writing, reading, social studies, observation and journaling and the fine arts. Studies show access to green spaces boosts achievement test scores, improve children’s health, and positively impact behavior. 

5.    Find Financial Support

Local and national grants are available to help get school gardens started.  Even without grants, they’re relatively inexpensive to construct.  Hold community awareness and fundraising campaigns, and seek in-kind donations from local community groups and businesses. 

6.    Learn from Others

Visit websites like to get free how-to guides, lesson ideas and indoor and outdoor classroom activities, as well as learn about educator workshops, events, grants, contests and more.  Read stories about successful school garden programs on our blog

7.    Engage Students

Encourage children to get their hands dirty by having them plant and tend the outdoor classroom.  At Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette, Ill, 800 students each planted three plugs to get their native plant garden started.  Now 100 children each day choose to spend their 20 minute recess exploring and working in the mature garden. At many schools, students plant seeds in their classrooms and transplant them to the garden. Children focus on the details, so get them to help in the planning process and give them time to explore. Younger students especially enjoy “moveable parts,” like sticks, stumps and stones that can be used in creative play.  Start by spending minutes in the garden, not hours, and build from there.  You also may want to add a literacy component. 

8.    No Expertise Needed

Not a “gardener?”  No problem.  The hardest part of starting an outdoor classroom is building community and buy-in.  As for the planting, follow this rule of thumb:  Roots down, green up.   Gardens are relatively forgiving, and lessons can be learned by all when plants don’t thrive.  Local Master Gardeners, Farm Bureaus, botanic gardens and nurseries can provide guidance and support. 

9.    Craft a Summer Maintenance Plan

Caring for the outdoor classroom while school is out is a big challenge.  Pull in school families and community groups like scouts and summer campers to water and weed on designated weeks.  Hosting an occasional maintenance get-together is a fun way to bring together volunteers, parents, students and community.

10.    Start Small

Experienced school gardeners agree: Start small.  Create a culture around your garden before expanding it.  

Copyright Anne Nagro

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