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Cultivating Place

Engaging students with place-based learning in community gardens

Science and Children—March/April 2021 (Volume 58, Issue 4)

By Kean Roberts, Jesse Wilcox, and Anna Bahnson

Cultivating Place

Today’s children spend less time in nature than in previous generations (Louv 2008). As a result, children tend to dissociate themselves from nature, often viewing it as a far off or imaginary place (Aaron and Witt 2011). Urban and suburban students may perceive they lack the natural experiences necessary to discuss environmental issues (e.g., water quality, climate change), reducing their ability to effectively internalize science content.

Place-based education repairs the relationship between children, nature, and community. Place-based education derives curricula from the local community pertaining to “both the natural and built environments” (Sobel 2004, p. 13). Benefits from natural experiences include increased engagement, understanding of scientific content, mental and physical benefits, development of personal identity, and environmental stewardship skills (Gill 2014). Exploring scientific content within the local environment helps children identify novel aspects of nature, causing a deeper curiosity and sense of responsibility towards environmental stewardship (Bugden and Stedman 2018). To develop environmental stewardship in students, teachers must engage students in concrete experiences paired with explicit discussions about environmental care (Table 1).

Table 1
Example questions for environmental care development.

Example questions for environmental care development.

Not only can place-based education teach students about caring for nature, but it can also increase equity and inclusion through cultural relevance (Gruenewald 2003; NGSS Lead States 2013, Appendix D). However, these benefits require teachers to use culturally responsive and equitable practices alongside the place-based learning context (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Culturally responsive and equitable practices

Student Interest and Identity
  • What personal interests do students have outside of school?
  • How can students generate science questions or design engineering projects that center and build on their interests?
  • What languages and cultures do my students speak and identify with?
  • How can students’ diverse home and neighborhood experiences and knowledge serve as a resource for further science learning?
Home and Community Engagement
  • What issues are relevant to the local community?
  • How can a diverse group of community members assist in designing and/or leading a lesson or unit?
  • How can our school remove roadblocks for families to participate in school science?
  • How can lessons address social inequities in our community? For example, how might food produce from the garden serve people with financial and nutritional needs?
Teacher Interactions
  • To what extent do I make sure all student voices are heard inside and outside of the classroom?
  • How are my biases as a teacher interfering with an equitable learning environment?
  • To what extent is my language inclusive (e.g., avoid using phrases like: “you guys”, “boys and girls”)?
  • When outdoors, how much time do I spend focused on behavior rather than helping students make sense of phenomena around them?
  • How can I differentiate in multiple ways? (e.g., process, product, content, environment)

Community Garden

We use a community garden as a context for place-based education in urban and suburban environments. Community gardens are places where community members come together to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs. We work in a variety of community garden settings in diverse urban and suburban school populations. In all cases, the gardens have been around for a number of years and are managed as a partnership between the school faculty, students, and diverse stakeholders (e.g., Parks and Rec, Tribal College Extension Staff, Soil and Conservation Department).

Regardless of the student population or school geography, community gardens can provide a context for teaching numerous standards across multiple grades (Table 2) and can help all students better understand nature. To help illustrate the versatility of community gardens, we have included three sample 5E lessons from different grade levels and school contexts. For each activity, we demonstrate how community gardens can teach elementary science concepts, connect students to nature, and foster inclusion and access for our diverse student populations (see Table 2).

Figure 2
Specimens for observation.

Specimens for observation.

Table 2
Figure 3 Community garden activities and NGSS across grade levels.

Community garden activities and NGSS across grade levels.

In an urban elementary school community garden, first-grade students engage in observing organisms from an insect collection and potted plants that are often found in our community garden. Prior to class, we pin insects from a preexisting collection into styrofoam cups and have plants for each group to observe. After we talk about how to carefully and safely observe organisms (e.g., the insects might break if touched), we break students into groups of two and have one student get a styrofoam cup with an insect and another student get a plant. Students get 5–10 minutes to explore the organisms. Then we ask students to identify parts of the organisms they find interesting and what they think those parts do for the organisms. After students have had five minutes to observe and discuss, we ask one partner to walk around and show other groups their organisms while the other partner explains the parts they observed and what they think the parts do. We record their ideas on a t-chart.

After students explore the structures and possible functions of their organisms, we introduce books to help students construct an explanation about the function of plant and animal structures. While students investigate, we walk around the room, listen to their ideas, and differentiate by asking questions. Some example teacher questions and student responses include:

How is that part of the pepper plant similar to other plants?

It’s a green leaf. Lots of plants have leaves.

How do you think the fruit helps the plant?

It has seeds. We learned seeds grow new plants.

Why might fruit help animals?

Animals eat fruit. It’s their food.

Why do you think plants have roots? How might roots help them?

Roots keep the plant from falling over. Roots get water.

The next day, weather permitting, we take students outside to the garden to elaborate on what they learned about structure/function. Before departing, we review classroom management routines (Figure 3). We ask, “How can we be respectful of other classrooms when we walk to the exit?” Students often say: “We need to be quiet” and “We need to do line basics.” Once we are outside, we ask students to carefully observe the plants and see if they find any insects. We encourage them to draw pictures, label a structure they notice, and explain what the structure does for the plants and animals.

Figure 3

Management and safety considerations.

Prior to Going Outside:
  • Be sure to find out if any child has allergies (e.g., bees, food, seasonal allergies); communicate with the parents, nurse, and administration; and be sure to have a plan.
  • If children have disabilities, communicate with parents and the child about how to best engage the child in the outdoor learning experience.
  • Ensure you are effectively teaching students routines for going to the garden.
  • Ensure students are putting on sunscreen and bringing their gloves
  • Ask students about procedures for going outside (e.g., line basics).
  • Ensure students know what they will do when they get outside.
While Outside:
  • Teach students how to carefully use garden tools and monitor them closely.
  • Consider practices to reduce the chances of students getting too dirty (knee pads, gloves, using tools to dig).
  • Have conversations with students about how they can appropriately show care towards living things and safely interact with them.
  • Ensure you talk with students about boundaries for where they can go outside.
  • Given being outside is very exciting, consider providing some freedom and unstructured time to the children to explore and experience the garden and outdoors.
  • Take time to discern how to best interact with students outdoors. They will likely be louder and more excited, which can be a good thing! Help channel the excitement toward the lesson.
Returning inside:
  • Ensure students check their clothing and shoes to ensure they aren’t too dirty.
  • Have a routine for how students will wash their hands and how they will return to learning indoors.
COVID-19 Protocols:
  • Ensure students wash their hands prior to and after going outside.
  • Keep adequate space (>6 feet) between children and teach them how they can move from place to place outside.
  • Follow mask procedures of the school.
  • Be sure to have enough materials (e.g., garden tools) to reduce the amount students have to share.

When we return to the classroom, we have students sit on the carpet and share their drawings and observations with an elbow partner. We then ask small groups to share what they found with the whole group. Once students have had time to share their ideas, we formatively assess by having them write a summary of the main ideas from the last two days. We ask, “What did you learn about plants and animals?” Students often say “Body parts do things for the animals,” and “Parts help animals survive.” Often, students initially focus only on animals, so we ask, “How could we include plants as well as animals?” Students note plants also have parts that help them do things and survive.

Finally, we help students evaluate how our activities connect to nature by asking: “How is the garden an example of nature?” Students often say there are plants, animals, and soil in the garden. We press a bit further by asking, “Many people think there isn’t nature in the city, but why isn’t this true?” Students note there are plants and animals all around them even though it might not be as much as a forest. We then ask, “How do plants and animal parts help humans?” Students often point out that humans eat fruits and vegetables and plants feed animals that we eat.

The next day, we begin with seeds from various trees and plants around the garden (e.g., maple, apple, cockleburs, dandelion). Students observe and discuss why seeds are an important part of the plant, referring back to our structure/function conversations from the previous days. Using our garden experiences, we ask the students, “Why do we plant our garden plants apart from each other?” Students note if they were too close, they don’t grow. We then transition students to designing a solution that mimics seed dispersal. We ask, “Why would it be good for a plant to be able to get its seeds to spread out? Students note they will grow better. We then hold up some seeds and pose an engineering problem to students: “How could we design a way to get this seed to move far away from the plant?” If students are struggling, we differentiate by using the seeds from our earlier examples to help them generate ideas. Our students often come up with solutions such as:

  • Using tape to simulate a seed getting stuck on an animal.
  • Putting the seed on a piece of candy so people want to take it with them.
  • Making a “helicopter” similar to the maple seed.
  • Making a parachute to carry the seed in the wind.

After students have engineered solutions that mimic natural adaptations, we extend the lessons by investigating real-world engineering solutions designed from plants and animals. We show students pictures of animals and plants and point their attention to a particular structure. We then ask, “How do you think that part helps the plant/animal?” Once students talk about the idea, we reveal what the function of the structure is along with showing students a picture of how inventors used that structure/function relationship to invent something for humans. Examples of this include:

  • Burdock seeds and Velcro
  • Shark skin and swimming suits
  • Lightning bugs and glow sticks
  • Spider webs and surgical tape

We have noticed that our students seem to be more curious and aware of the living things around them. After these activities, many students have excitedly shared that they noticed plants and animals at recess and in their yards at home.

Example 5E Lesson: Interdependent Relationships

In a second-grade suburban after-school program, we use the garden to help students understand the importance of pollinators while making place-based connections to indigenous ways of knowing. We teach this lesson in the spring when numerous plants bloom. Prior to this, our students engaged in investigations to determine if plants need sunlight and water to grow (e.g., Prindle and Ihrig 2011) but have not yet observed flowers.

We engage students by sharing that some exciting changes have happened in the garden since they last visited. Once outside, students are surprised to see apple trees with flowers! We encourage deeper observations by asking students to take turns recording in pairs what they notice and what they wonder. Their reflections include: “I wonder why trees even have flowers?” and “When will the apples come?” We ask students what we should do to investigate their questions and they suggest we return to the garden each week to observe the trees.

The following week, students quickly note the trees have lost their flowers. Perplexed, students wonder “Where did the flowers go?” and “Are the trees dying?” We encourage the students to explore the trees more closely and give them five minutes to write and sketch but review safety expectations and boundaries before letting them go. We then ask one partner to share their detailed observations, which typically include, “The petals fell off, but the inside part of the flower is still there.” We revisit the garden one final week to see what changes have happened and students notice a small fruit emerging from where the flowers were.

Re-visiting the garden each week builds anticipation and excitement in our students while laying the groundwork for understanding the importance of pollination. In the final week, we show time-lapse videos of fruits and vegetables and ask students, “How is what we see happening in the videos similar to what we observed in our garden?” Our students note that in every video, the flowers are replaced by fruit. We invite students to create drawings to model and explain their garden observations.

We introduce the phenomenon of pollination by showing an engaging video of pollinators interacting with flowers ( and we read two books, Flowers are Calling (2015) and What is Pollination? (2010). After, we give students 10 minutes to observe preserved bees and ask, “What structures on the bee might help it carry pollen for the plant?” Then, as a formative assessment, we have students return to their initial models and evaluate what they have learned about the bee’s role in pollinating the apple tree flowers. For our summative assessment, we present three new underappreciated pollinators: a bat, a moth, and a beetle and ask students over one 45 minute session to create a way to explain to someone the importance of these animals. We differentiate by letting students choose which pollinator they want to explain and how they want to model the animal’s relationship to plants. Allowing choice accommodates the varying background experiences, abilities, and needs of our students. Some students draw a story, some use computer pictures, and others build a 3D representation. Regardless of their choices, we look for how well students’ models convey an understanding that the function of the animal is to disperse pollen for the plant.

To elaborate on a sense of place, student groups of four collaborate with local artists to turn their model creations into art for the community. To help students see how nature is interconnected with humans, we provide discussion prompts to ask students such as:

  • Why can we credit the pollinators for our favorite fruits and vegetables?
  • How would humans be impacted if the pollinators declined?
  • Many tribes view plants and animals as sacred relatives, how can we show respect to pollinators and help more survive?
  • How is creating art supporting Native values of sharing and generosity?

We listen to their conversations and often hear students say things like, “Pollinators visit flowers and transfer pollen to help make our fruit” and “We can share our science knowledge through art so more people can learn to take care of pollinators.” We notice how our students’ understanding has grown from their initial wonderings about flowers as they communicate details of what they learned about pollination and their connections to nature and culture.

During a fifth-grade urban summer STEM program, we utilize our community garden’s compost to help students learn about the movement of matter. To engage the students, we visit the community garden when the fruits begin to ripen and look for interactions between plants, insects, and other animals. As we enter the garden, students are quick to proclaim, “Those rabbits are trying to eat our crops!” “I saw a lot of worms wriggling on the top of the dirt,” and “There were birds standing near the tomatoes!” We encourage students to reason why these animals may have been in each location before heading inside with our observations.

When we return to the classroom, students explore “baseball cards” of organisms that can often be found in and around the garden (Figure 4; see Supplemental Resources). Students then work to make a food web using the cards and drawing lines between them on a large piece of paper. We notice that students tend to quickly identify some relationships (e.g., rabbits eat plants, snakes eat mice) but don’t make a lot of connections to worms, fungi, or insects. To assist students in explanation, we ask “what do you think would happen to a tomato if it sat on the ground for a long time?” Students share stories of moldy fruits and vegetables left in their households but don’t know what happens once it enters their trash cans. To ensure we are teaching equitably, we elicit responses from many voices by using wait time and encouraging those who have shared to allow others an opportunity to speak up.

Figure 4
Species cards.

Species cards.

The next day, we return to this conundrum by pulling out four sealed jars of compost at different stages of decomposition. In groups of two, students discuss what they notice about the containers. After handing out nitrile gloves for safety, we hand out dissection scopes and sealed petri dishes of each compost sample to help students make more detailed observations. Students that look through the dissection scopes recognize various populations of worms (or other decomposers) in each sample. We reinforce these observations by asking “Why do you think they are living in there?” If students struggle to connect fungi to decomposition, we ask “How do you think what mold does is similar to what a worm does?” This scaffold helps students view fungi as vital to breaking down food in the compost.

After 10 minutes of investigating the jars, we coalesce their observations in a whole-group discussion before stating, “All of these jars started out the same; why do you think they look so different?” Students elaborate that these jars differ in age, to which we respond with, “What container do you think is the oldest? Why?” Students conclude that the container appearing most similar to soil is the oldest one. To punctuate this idea, we posit “If it looks so similar to soil, what do you think would happen if we tried to grow something in it?” We have students design a way they could test their ideas. Students often decide on planting seeds in soil and in compost and seeing which one grows plants better. Students observe the plants each day, recording measurements and drawings. After students have investigated plant growth in compost, we have students consider what happened to the matter. Students often say things similar to, “Decomposers break up all of the dead things on the ground and make it so other things can grow!” and “Worms aren’t the only types of decomposers! When a tomato is moldy on the ground, that’s actually good for the soil!” Returning to their models, students evaluate how decomposers assist in cycling matter through an environment by using the garden as context. The models serve as a summative assessment of student learning for this standard.

As plants continue to grow in compost, we make connections to humans and nature by asking, “Chemical fertilizers are used a lot more than compost; why do you think humans use chemical fertilizers rather than compost?” Students tend to say that chemical fertilizers can be bought at stores, take a lot less time, and are easier to use, to which we respond with “Although it may be cheaper, faster, and easier to use chemical fertilizers, they are harmful to the environment. Why do you think humans should protect and care for the environment?” Our students often say, “Fertilizers help humans, but caring for the environment will help all organisms.” and “We want people and other things to be safe. Compost is better.” Through discussions like these, we work to help students consider the environmental issues connected to their everyday lives.

In this article, we provide three place-based examples, but there are many more connections teachers can make between a community garden and their classrooms—regardless of their teaching context. While effective place-based pedagogy takes intentional planning, some of the most authentic experiences occurred spontaneously from our students’ curiosity and engagement with the community. We noticed students were more engaged with the community garden following the place-based activities and were more curious about natural phenomena in our environment. It is clear that the community garden worked very well in providing a place-based context, even in the city, to engage all students with science and nature.


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Gibbons, G. 2015. The vegetables we eat. New York: Holiday House.

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Gray, R., and K. Pak. 2015. Flowers are calling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kalman, B. 2010. What is Pollination? New York: Crabtree Publishing Company.

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Supplemental Resources

Download species cards at

Kean Roberts ( is a science teacher at Ames Middle School in Ames, Iowa. Jesse Wilcox ( is an assistant professor of STEM Education at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Anna Bahnson ( is the Tribal Science Outreach Coordinator at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota.


Aaron, R.F., and P.A. Witt. 2011. Urban students’ definitions and perceptions of nature. Children Youth and Environments 21 (2): 145–167.

Bugden, D., and R. Stedman. 2019. Place and behavior: The role of accessibility. Journal of Environmental Psychology 63: 109–117.

Gill, T. 2014. The benefits of children’s engagement with nature: A systematic literature review. Children Youth and Environments 24 (2): 10–34.

Gruenewald, D.A. 2003. The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational researcher 32 (4): 3–12.

Louv, R. 2008. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin books.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Appendix D “All Standards, All Students:” Making the Next Generation Science Standards Accessible to All Students. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, by States, Volume 2: Appendixes, ed. NGSS Lead States, 25–39. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Prindle, J.N., and L.M. Ihrig, L. M. 2011. Growing Minds: Planting a Lasting Seed Using the Learning Cycle. Iowa Science Teachers Journal 38 (1): 13–18.

Roberts, K., and J. Kruse. 2019. Repairing the Relationship between Students and Nature. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 92 (1–2): 23–27.

Sobel, D. 2004. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Orion Society.

Switzer, C. 2014. Middle school using place-based inquiry to inspire and motivate future scientists. Science Scope 37 (5): 50.

Biology Inclusion Life Science Teaching Strategies

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