Growing Seeds of Understanding

School gardens can foster cross-cultural and multicultural understandings.


School gardens can produce more than lettuce and cucumbers; they can grow seeds of understanding. While schools across the country are using gardens effectively for promoting academic goals in all areas of learning, some schools are also focusing on other, less well-understood benefits of gardening.

At the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico, for example, efforts to establish an on-campus garden started several years ago with some innovative ideas about what this garden might accomplish. The garden, referred to as the Desert Oasis Teaching Garden (D.O.T. Garden), is designed to be a resource for the entire community. While its primary focus is on educating students and adults about sustainable gardening practices in a desert environment, it also fosters community engagement and cross-cultural and multicultural understandings.

Teachers from the academy have found unique ways of using the D.O.T. Garden to promote cultural connections. French- and Spanish-language teachers, for example, are working with their students to make signage in these languages. The art teacher takes students to the garden to reflect on ways artists, for centuries, have looked to nature for inspiration. The garden presents connections to ancient civilizations with the ollas (porous clay pots) that are part of its irrigation system. Plans are also in place to install an horno (outdoor clay oven) to promote understanding of local Native American cultures, including those of the Zuni, Apache and Navajo peoples.

One culturally diverse school in Australia is taking the idea of using a garden to promote cultural understanding to a whole new level. This particular school community has a high proportion of migrant and refugee families. Their gardening program uses food, gardening and cooking as catalysts for learning about culture, language and the environment. Parents, guardians, grandparents and other community members (typically new arrivals to Australia) are paired with individual students as “gardening buddies” to develop food gardens. The adults share stories and information about gardening and their culture while the children mentor their adult buddies in learning English and connecting with the larger community. Here, gardening together proves to be an experience that transcends language and cultural differences.

You don’t have to go to New Mexico or Australia to get ideas on how gardens can plant seeds of understanding. Just think of the multiple ways people across time and countries have raised and consumed food. Gardening and food-related lessons can help students develop understandings about different economies, human communities and the environment. They can learn about the influence of geography and climate on food production, how the consumption of food is sometimes considered a religious ritual and why some people choose to be vegetarians.

Gardening and food-related lessons also can prompt students to recognize the diversity of people in the world, identify differences and commonalities in the human community and develop genuine connections with others. While maps and history lessons can be used to address these goals, students may find hands-on experiences with food and gardening more engaging.

For more information about how gardening can be used to foster appreciation of diversity, the following links may be helpful.

Editor’s note: The goals of recognizing diversity, commonalities and connections are reflected in the Identity and Diversity domains of Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Framework, which you can use to engage students of all grade levels.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer with a primary interest in connecting children with nature.

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