The sun bears down on the rooftop garden Lai Lai Sheung and her students have planted on the rooftop of the Quincy Elementary School in downtown Boston. The trees—an apple and two pears—are not tall enough yet to throw shade, but now, in their third year of growth, they are bearing their first fruits.
Sheung’s students are amazed; she is happy. Now they can watch plants develop through their whole cycle. When they studied plants indoors, she says, they had to stop when the seedlings developed three leaves. Now Sheung’s students have seen trees flower and fruit, awaited the return of perennials, and watched worms turn spent plants into dirt for the next generation.
This garden is one of nearly 60 schoolyard projects supported by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI), part of a larger movement known as Schoolyard Learning, which aims to make school grounds an integral part of the school learning experience.
A recent white paper by EDC’s International Development Division (IDD), in collaboration with the BSI, takes one of the first comprehensive looks at the movement’s results and promise. “Schoolyard Learning: the Impact of School Grounds” reviews the current literature, including surveys of more than 100 active school grounds programs, and makes recommendations for strengthening the connection between school grounds, learning, and child development.
The findings suggest a generally positive relationship between the condition of the built environment and students’ learning outcomes. In a recent study of 40 schools across the US which explicitly used the environment as an integrated context for learning, for instance, researchers found that students outperformed their peers on academic measures, evoked fewer disciplinary actions, and displayed greater engagement in learning.
An older study, conducted in England, found that students from schools with complex landscape features scored higher than students from undeveloped school grounds on measures of botanical knowledge and enjoyment of nature, and lower on measures of dominance, or a need to control nature.
While the paper’s authors make clear that further, quantitative, research is needed to clarify the relationship between school grounds and student learning, they identify four key characteristics that seem critical to successful schoolyard learning programs:
- they are collaboratively designed, involving educators, local residents, landscape designers, and students themselves
- they serve multiple uses, including developmentally appropriate play and learning activities
- they are integrated into the school’s curriculum and educational planning process, and
- they establish a “culture of use” that ensures their sustainability and continuity of benefits and activities across the years.
In its sixth year, the Josiah Quincy rooftop garden is a good example of a high performing schoolyard, and a cautionary tale about the work involved. Read more about it below, which correlates gardening activities with curriculum standards.
Schoolyard Learning in Action: the Josiah Quincy Elementary School
Land was scarce even 30 years ago, when this school was built; it never had a traditional, ground-level schoolyard. Instead, play spaces were created from the school’s rooftops, but when the spaces were renovated five years ago, no provision was made for plants or gardens.
Sheung, who grew up in Hong Kong, where a rooftop garden provided her and her schoolmates a “relaxed place where we could talk or just hang out,” wanted a garden and was willing to start small. She and the ten third graders who joined her after-school gardening club made their first container garden from plastic milk jugs. As enthusiasm for the garden grew, Sheung and her students recruited parents, grandparents, and professionals to help it grow.
Most of Sheung’s students are bi-lingual Mandarin-English and their parents, many of whom emigrated from rural backgrounds in mainland China, responded to the garden enthusiastically. Mini-grants from the Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom (MAC) program helped her enlarge the garden year by year, while arborists from MAC showed the students how to prune their fruit trees.
Parents and volunteers from Boston’s City Year program helped with much of the work, which grew to include colorful murals on the garden walls. Sheung also reached out to residents of the nearby Golden Age Center (whose windows look out onto the rooftop gardens), engaging seniors as gardening mentors.
To make certain gardening tasks simple enough for children, Sheung punctured coffee cans and sunk them into the soil so the students wouldn’t underwater the plants. Sheung and her students reclaimed a rooftop shed full of garbage and now they keep their bags of soil, watering cans, and tools there, everything neatly labeled and available to other classes.
Today five classes are responsible for tending the rooftop gardens, and grants from the Boston Schoolyard Initiative have been used to provide inservice training in schoolyard learning to additional teachers in the school.
But, Sheung laments, “the work of a garden is very labor-intensive.” (Her Hong Kong school had a gardener, she adds.) “It’s hard keeping everyone on board.”
Integrated into Curriculum
Sheung has her students make drawings of the outcomes they predict will follow from planting seeds. She’s seen pictures of carrots growing straight up out of the ground, and a bell pepper at the end of a single stalk, without leaves or flowers. “This clears up some misconceptions,” she says modestly.
Gardening is an especially strong way to teach math and science, she notes. “Even mixing soils and fertilizers becomes a lesson in measuring and counting.” Students also measure air and soil temperatures and monitor the sky. “When they make charts, they understand the importance of data collection because it ties back to something meaningful to them.”
Sheung also reports that students who garden with her are gentler—”even with the worms! They don’t step on them anymore.”
Different playgrounds occupy different sections of the roof. A wall of annual flowers tumbles down the west wall of the kindergarten garden, while gardens tended by older children feature fruit trees and compost bins. In response to interest younger children have shown, Sheung hopes to have her third graders begin conducting garden tours.
The Josiah Quincy School is a community school; after-school and summer school programs keep its doors open and its gardens accessible year-round. Last summer Sheung taught gardening to a class of six troubled adolescent boys, and found the young men eager to help. “It’s a hands-on activity and kids feel useful, like they’re contributing something,” she says. And when the first strawberries ripened, she notes, three of the boys shared a single strawberry in order to leave some for the others.
Originally published on June 30, 2001