Why Open Interactive Environments Can Foster a More Authentic Learning Experience

Written by Tiffany Li , School Gardens Summer Intern

This past summer, working with SPEC as the School Gardens Program Intern, I had the invaluable opportunity to slow down and reflect on the past year as a full time online student. Being outside in the gardens was a sharp contrast to the fifteen hours of daily screen time, through zoom lectures that began to blend into incomprehensible sounds and low stimulating interactions.

From the bright laughter of children, to the crunch of breaking plant cells during pruning, the smell of lemon balm; working in the school gardens has revitalized my senses and my brain. More than any other responsibility in this role, delivering and facilitating interactive garden and nature lessons has been the greatest reminder of how valuable in person education is and why open interactive environments can foster a more authentic learning experience. 

by Gennifer Meldrum: Students observing lady beetle larvae during a beneficial insect lesson.

The Environment

The outdoor setting of the gardens has largely contributed to the creation of a safe and relaxed learning space, rather than organizing in a highly structured learning environment. I noticed that by allowing students to be intimately interconnected with their learning environment, they were much more interested in engaging in the lesson and approaching unfamiliar knowledge. 

I observed less talkative, often shy children excitedly raise their hands to participate when asked about their observations of bumble bees versus honey bees (during a fun scavenger game focused on the roles of pollinators). Additionally, to positively contribute to the social environment, rather than a one directional approach to teaching, the sessions encouraged a dynamic exchange of questions and answers. For example, we consistently reassured the children that it was okay to be unsure, to guess, to ask questions. Perhaps it is this physical and social environment that creates curious minds who are not afraid of getting the wrong answer. 

The Connections

The School Gardens Program Coordinator and I always encouraged the children to seek connections between the lesson and their lived experiences. For example, many times after our core lesson and garden observations, the children would come up to me eagerly to share how and what they remembered from our teachings, what they saw, smelled, touched, heard and how it correlated with classroom learnings and videos they watched online. It was always a pleasure to hear that some children were actively reflecting on the lessons, going home and choosing to engage with online content that was related to our topics of discussion, certainly impressive considering that it was during their free time on devices with endless entertainment options for kids. 

I observed children enjoy rubbing oregano, putting it up to their noses and having their eyes light up. “It smells like pizza Miss Tiffany”, they would exclaim. Slowly but surely, they began to identify the plants around them; building connections to what they were already eating at home. 

I found that the summer nature camps fostered a more personal and holistic approach to learning contrasting the traditional system of education (of information delivery) of memorization and regurgitation.

by Tiffany Li: A flourishing bed at Southlands Elementary of bean, zucchini, tomato, pea and sunflower.

Higher Thinking

Teaching in the garden, we are already involving the visual, auditory and kinesthetic elements of higher-level learning. However, with the hands-on activities such as soil texture tests, worm observation, planting seeds, and adding soil amendments, the children were able to directly but unknowingly practice their observational and reasoning skills. For instance, after learning about insects, children explored the garden searching for lady beetles (bugs). Lady beetles in their larval or pupae stages look quite different from their adult form which intrigued the children. Despite not knowing the exact terminology, students through visual observation of several lady beetles at different stages in their life cycle, began to understand the process of metamorphosis. The garden is a great place to practice critical thinking without children even knowing!

My Take-aways

Reflecting on the success of the garden lessons with the students, I am reminded to be fearlessly curious with my own learning, to think about my identity as a learner more holistically and to understand the opportunities to practice higher level thinking is abundant outside the classroom. This fall, whenever I’m feeling restless from hours of studying at my desk I will remember to walk around my garden and revisit these lessons from the summer.