For a half-hour every week, each of Los Cerritos’s classes mill around the rows of produce in various stages of growth. Dianne Swanson, a kindergarten teacher, started the garden with four beds in 2000, five years after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin announced her hope that every California school would have a garden. Today a few thousand California schools have gardens, by some estimates.
Los Cerritos’s school garden now includes 22 raised beds for more than 35 types of fruit, a small fruit orchard, and various plants that are both drought-resistant and native to California. Grants and awards from private entities, totaling more than $40,000, have helped the Urban Farmyard at Los Cerritos thrive. And the PTA fundraised to hire Brimley as garden coordinator to teach garden instruction four days per week.
Los Cerritos teachers use the Urban Farmyard to teach math, science, history, and language arts—all, unsurprisingly, with an environmental bent.
“They figure out the ratio of fertilizer to soil,” Swanson said. “They do taste tests on different fruits and vegetables and graph the results with a bar or line graph. They also do data collection by measuring worms.”
Visits to the Urban Farmyard have also introduced children to scientific concepts —the food chain, photosynthesis, the ecosystem—and even history.
“I’ve done social-studies units on Native Americans and colonists,” Swanson said. “We’ve planted the crops that they used for dye. We grew wheat, harvested it, and threshed it. We had to do it all by hand.”
Such experience-based lessons are also said to line up with Common Core State Standards, which emphasize real-world skills. Brimley’s estimation lesson, for example, meets the math standards, which dictate that beginning in first grade, students should develop an understanding of measurement and how to represent and interpret data.
Time in the Urban Farmyard has become one of first-grader Audrina Sanchez’s favorite activities at school, offering a new environment and sensory experience. “I like learning about math outside because you get to hear more noises and sounds,” she said.
Carol Hillhouse, the director of the school gardening program at University of California, Davis, said children benefit from learning in an environment that engages them on both a mental and sensory level. This may especially benefit children who struggle to focus in traditional classrooms because of Attention Deficit Disorder or hyperactivity, she added.
“You may be doing estimation and learning those mathematical concepts in the garden, but then there’s the smells, there’s the sounds,” Hillhouse said. “There’s a kid having a side conversation. All of those other things may be happening at the same time, and for some of us this is great. We can actually be taking in a number of things while doing estimation.”