Cultivating Learning in the Teaching Garden

Cultivating Learning in the Teaching Garden

Excellent schools cultivate learning in as many ways as possible; some even cultivate a garden. The Toronto Heschel School has its own Teaching Garden, which yields an abundance of educational benefits. Students plant,
grow and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables for their school community and neighbours, and reap valuable competency in ecological literacy, a new 21st century proficiency standard that relates to understanding living systems and their environment. The school is honored to be the only Toronto Jewish day school offering this enriched learning facility.

Studies into education, the environment, and health deliver fascinating evidence of the advantages of a teaching garden.  In her summary of literature on the impact of school gardens, E.J. Ozer found that school gardens “promoted students’ achievement, psychosocial development, motivation to learn, behavioural engagement and their cooperation with peers.” (Ozer, Health Education and Behaviour, 2006, The Effects of School Gardens on Students and Schools: Conceptualization and Considerations for Maximizing Healthy Development.)

A Toronto District School Board study found that students involved in a school garden showed more enthusiasm and engagement for learning, better retention of knowledge and increased ability to think more creatively. (Dyment,J.E., Evergreen, 2005, Gaining Ground:The Power and Potential of School Ground Greening in the Toronto District School Board.) Learning in the garden develops students’ sense of responsibility, cooperation, and teamwork, increases student time outdoors and motivates students to pay closer attention to foods.Environmental awareness and eating fresh produce become normative, and the benefits of a school garden continue further.

The Toronto Heschel School’s Teaching Garden and environmental programme underpins the school’s sense of success. Ozer (2006) found that schools with gardens report more school community pride and the feeling that theirs is a ‘good’ school. This enthusiasm is visible at the many Toronto
Heschel events that centre around the garden throughout the year. The “feel good” spirit bolsters success overall.

Even before school begins Garden Guardians (23 families this year!) are out weeding and watering, harvesting and caring for the garden. Peas, strawberries, mint and enormous sunflowers greet all who visit. In the fall, as families celebrate Sukkot, the holiday of harvest, students gather squash, beets, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other vegetables for the annual “Sukkot Soup,” cooked to delicious perfection by parent volunteers.

We serve latkas made from our garden’s potatoes on Chanukka and in spring many hours are spent moving earth, planting, mulching, cleaning and doing what it takes it to ready the garden for the new season. In June, the whole school enjoys the organic salad that was planted, cultivated, harvested and prepared by Grade 3 students.  The list of activities goes on and on.

The Teaching Garden rivets student focus on the questions: “Where does our food come from? How does it grow? Who will take the care to grow it?” The questions lead our children to consider their relationship to nature and their role in caring for it.

This is reflective learning at its essence. By engaging students to participate in the cycle of planting and growing, the garden welcomes students to experience and therefore understand where their own nourishment
originates. A pea is not simply a pea. It is a seed a child has personally nurtured, while considering its needs to survive and become a tall, flourishing pea plant.

Without a doubt the children appreciate the fruits of their labour. One supply teacher at Toronto Heschel once commented that he had “never seen kids get so excited about vegetables and salad. They just kept lining up for more!”

Their parents mirror their conviction and excitement. Parents plant their own seeds by sending their children to a school that values ecological literacy. They then bolster this decision through participation in the school’s garden activities, and annually, they reap a harvest of excited and committed environmental enthusiasts, who have mastered a myriad of cross curricular skills while gardening their hearts out.

In this season of the Jewish new year, we remember that the essence of Torah is to choose life (Deuteronomy 13:19). Ecological literacy provides children with competency towards understanding living systems and the lives of people who live within them. Through their environmental studies, children can become better centred on that core Jewish value. And it can all begin in a garden.

Planning for education, David Orr, a board member with the Centre for Ecoliteracy, advises that, ” This tug toward life is strongest at an early age when we are most alert and impressionable. Before their minds have been marinated in the culture of television, consumerism, shopping malls, computers, and freeways, children can find the magic in trees, water, animals, landscapes, and their own places. Properly cultivated and validated by caring and knowledgeable adults, fascination with nature can mature into ecological literacy and eventually into more purposeful lives.” ( )

In the Teaching Garden, children, teachers and parents collaborate as students, professionals, and volunteers. They live the values that serve a flourishing garden, a successful community and a better world.

Elana Segal is a social worker specializing in counseling children and families. She is a past co-chair of the Environment Committee at The
Toronto Heschel School.

Our Sages Tell Us

Why Our Orthodox Family Chooses The Toronto Heschel School
Proud of Where We Came From and Proud of Where We’re Going
Why our Reform Family Chooses The Toronto Heschel School
We Look Outward and We Look Inward:


The Lola Stein Institute (LSI) is a centre of inventive educational thinking and addresses the challenge to re-frame schooling for the exigencies of our times.