School gardens can help students deal with emotional challenges

January 31, 2020

by Chelsea Krist, program coordinator

Children at picnic table.

We know the benefits of school garden programs as a component of farm to school education, thanks to decades of research and innovative school-based initiatives. Opportunities for hands-on, interdisciplinary projects and exploration exist all over a school garden. Consider the science of measuring and monitoring plant growth. Or the mathematics involved in planning a square-foot garden. Or multilingual art projects for the purpose of decorating and labeling garden plants.

Along with academic outcomes, school gardens can also support the mental and emotional health of school community members.

Shared projects and celebrations of food and culture reinforce school as a unique and important community. Emotional competencies like empathy, nurturance, and collective problem-solving develop through taking care of and observing things outside one’s self—things like plants and animals. Projects drive by students’ interests elevate their voice and decision-making abilities. This creates positive, memorable experiences in trying and exploring new things. With this, school gardens are naturally trauma-sensitive spaces.

Woman and child work in garden.
Emma Dubay (left) of FoodCorps Iowa works with students in the Wings Park Elementary school garden.

Oelwein’s school garden

The team at Wings Park Elementary school in Oelwein understands these concepts. They’re critical to the school garden program there. School guidance counselor Barb Schmitz and FoodCorps Iowa service member Emma Dubay, work with the broader school community. They use the large garden and school chickens as an environment for emotional expression, group play, storytelling, and connection.

The staff uses the school garden as a flexible learning space in a variety of ways. These include hands-on lessons with every grade, small groups during after-school camps, and opportunities for classes to use the outdoor classroom for reading or science.

“I feel that the Wings Park community is proud of our school garden, and excited to continue the work in the garden!” says Barb Schmitz.

Understanding ACEs

The Wings Park community uses the Adverse Childhood Experiences framework (ACEs). They realize that students don’t check their experiences or their identities at the door when they get to school. They bring family, culture, preferences, and for many, ACEs to school with them.

Small chicken coop with students sitting nearby drawing.
The school garden chickens at Wings Park Elementary.

“Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is the term used to represent a group of negative experiences children may face or witness while growing up.” (Psychology Today) People who work in trauma-informed environments are aware of and sensitive to ACEs. This awareness allows teachers and support staff to care for both physical and mental health of students.

Last year at the Iowa Farm to School Conference, Emma and Barb gave a presentation on their work with the Wings Park team. They shared, “By adopting trauma-informed teaching strategies, we can promote better social emotional learning for all students. It is exciting and encouraging to see the way that the garden can be used as a place for students to practice self-regulation.”

Relief from emotional challenges

Emma said that she sees this with large groups when students find a spot in the garden to do reflective writing in their journal, or when students have one-on-one time to engage with the chickens and help with garden tasks and chores.

Girl pushes wheelbarrow, another watches smiling.

She added, “The hands-on nature of the garden lends itself to sensory exploration and responsibility that seems to have a calming effect on a variety of students, especially those who might have social emotional challenges in the classroom.”

If you’re interested in making your school garden a trauma-informed environment, it’s important to have baseline understanding of ACEs. Always seek consultation with qualified professionals at your site if you have any specific concerns.

More resources

Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-informed education resources from the National Education Association.

FoodCorps Iowa video about the Wings Park garden program (on Facebook)