CITY SPROUTS: The Budding Movement to Integrate Garden-Based Learning in Public School Education

About the Author

Jane Hirschi is the executive director of CitySprouts school garden in program in Boston and Cambridge Schools. Her book, Ripe for Change: Garden Based Learning in Schools (Harvard Press 2015), was described by Richard Louv as “a powerful tool to enhance learning that every school should utilize.”

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When does a public school district decide that it’s worthwhile to invest in building school gardens?

The Boston Schoolyard Initiative built more than 30 outdoor classrooms in the city’s public schools, driven by the mayor’s strong interest and commitment. San Francisco Unified School District benefitted when school garden advocates aligned themselves with ADA compliance mandates.

As the director of CitySprouts, a school garden program operating in 21 urban schools across Boston and Cambridge, I appreciate the public awareness ‘lift’ from these high profile initiatives. A rising tide raises all boats, JFK famously noted, and that is certainly true for the movement to integrate garden-based learning in public school education.

Sometimes, however, school gardens are given life, not through the largess (or mandate) from outside forces but driven by a school district’s own educational plan– to meet the needs of nontraditional learners, for instance, or narrow the science achievement gap between different groups of students. When school gardens are recognized as a means to make educational opportunities more equitable to all students, school districts look up and pay attention.

This pathway to integrating school gardens district-wide is no less profound and could, in fact, be a more successful option for many communities.

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That’s the story in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Based on a district facility plan adopted in 2010, Cambridge Public Schools has begun building new school gardens in all new school construction. To date, the district has completed a rooftop school garden in a new (2015) school. Built a ground-level school garden as part of a schoolyard playground renovation in another school (2019).  Cambridge will have yet another school garden with a new school opening this fall.  And the city is in the feasibility stage with a third new school.

The root of the district’s investment in school gardens is captured in a simple statement in the district facility plan adopted nearly a decade ago. The plan declares school gardens a “desired building feature in the renovation/new construction of elementary buildings.” (Facilities Team Report. Cambridge Public Schools December 17, 2010)

It’s important to note that Cambridge is not new to school gardens. Every elementary school has an active learning garden. These were by-and-large built with parent fundraising and the efforts of CitySprouts. The CitySprouts program has provided environmental science programming to all 12 of the district’s elementary schools since 2007.

It is enormously significant that the modest, “bake sale” funded gardens in the elementary schools are being replaced with state-of-the-art learning gardens as new schools are built.

James Maloney, Chief Operating Officer for Cambridge Public School District writes: “For well over 10 years the CitySprouts Program has been an integral part of learning in Cambridge Public Schools. CitySprouts’ involvement in Cambridge Public Schools has become so deep that we have included space for CitySprouts gardens in the last two school buildings constructed in Cambridge…

“As we begin the feasibility study for an additional building housing both a K-5 elementary and 6-8 upper school it is our intention to also include space for a CitySprouts garden in the project…Of course, all of our other K-5/6-8 buildings have CitySprouts gardens as well…The decision to include space [for a learning garden] in the first two buildings was based upon the support of teachers, principals, students and parents and reflected how much CitySprouts had become a part of the Cambridge educational programming.”

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Cambridge Public Schools doesn’t distinguish the physical school garden from its usefulness as an educational resource to teachers and its accessibility to all its students. CitySprouts reinforces this connection by documenting the level to which the garden is incorporated in each school’s educational programming.

For instance, we track children’s access to learning in the garden by noting how frequently teachers are using the space for instruction, across grade levels and looking at how that instruction varies from year to year. Schools are motivated when the garden is clearly addressing equity for less-resourced students. They look for evidence that hands-on learning in their garden is having a significantly deeper impact for some groups of children– for English language learners, for instance, and for very young students who enter school with markedly fewer informal learning experiences than their peers.

The district pays attention when teachers report that class time in the garden “levels the learning field” for their students.

Back in 2010, when the Cambridge Public School facility plan was prioritizing “desired building features,” the confirmation of the value of garden-based learning from teachers, principals and families undoubtedly sealed the deal.

So what might this mean for other communities keen to get garden-based learning integrated in their school district? Design integrated with programming tops the list. Any district-wide school garden proposal should make sure there is a plan for integrating with a district’s educational goals, for supporting teachers’ use of the space in a meaningful way, and connecting whenever possible to after-school and community programs.

School gardens become much more sustainable when the physical garden is embedded in the district’s larger goals for student health and academic success. This, in turn, leads to a stronger commitment on districts’ part to maintain its gardens (since their educational goals are now dependent on their success). It also leads to active learning spaces– more children getting more time learning in nature, right on the other side of the classroom door.

Photo credit: City Sprouts

Additional Reading & Resources 

1 Comment

  1. Thank for your encouraging article. Here at the EJ School in Surf City, NJ we have just harvested our Spring Garden and are readying the garden beds for the Summer produce. Your words have vitalized my boots on the ground and hands in the soil to cultivate yet another season in the schoolyard garden. This coming year will be a decade for our GBL program, “Digging In The Dirt,” and there is still magic that is produced for a young gardener in elementary school that plants, tends, harvests and consumes what they have grown. Please visit our garden at:


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