There may be snow on the ground, but spring is in the air and gardens are on our minds - specifically school gardens, aimed at improving the health and well-being of children throughout our state.

The Cultivate Health Initiative, funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, has launched the Wisconsin School Garden Network to help grow and sustain the garden-based education movement throughout Wisconsin. 

Nathan Larson, director of the Cultivate Health Initiative

This joint project of Community GroundWorks and the UW Environmental Design Lab is led by grantees Nathan Larson, director of the Cultivate Health Initiative, and Sam Dennis, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Sam Dennis, associate professor in the UW-Madison Department of Landscape Architecture

The five-year $1 million Community Impact grant award features many community partners including schools, school districts, and regional health departments.

The initiative will provide direct technical assistance to 200 educational garden program sites in Wisconsin as well as in-person and web-based training, support, and educational resources to more than 2,000 school teachers, early care and education providers, after-school teachers, community educators, and parents on best practices in garden-based education.

A growing body of research and evidence shows that educational garden programs improve the health and well-being of children and the choices they make regarding fruits and vegetables.

“We know that children are much more likely to try a food, and like a food, that they help grow or harvest in a garden,” said Larson.

“Interest in school gardens continues to soar as more educators and parents recognize that a garden can be a core component of education during the school day,” he said. “Beyond education about nutrition and food choices, the garden provides an opportunity to experience a physical, dynamic learning environment, where kids can actively participate in their education.”

The school garden network will span across five regions throughout Wisconsin to support teachers, administrators, parents and others who want to start or sustain educational gardens. Regional coordinators will work with local partners to address obstacles, evaluate needs and address issues of health disparity that limit access to fresh, local food.

“By building strong connections between educators, support networks and resources, we are much more likely to sustain the many wonderful educational gardens already in Wisconsin as well as the new gardens that continue to be installed,” said Dennis. “Because children spend a significant portion of their time in school, after-school, and early childhood settings, these school-based garden interventions combined with nutrition education and physical activity have the potential to effectively promote healthy eating behaviors and prevent or reduce obesity in children.”

To further support garden-based education, Teaching in Nature's Classroom includes a philosophy of teaching in the garden.

To further support garden-based education, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education, was authored by Larson and funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program. In Teaching in Nature's Classroom, Larson shares a philosophy of teaching in the garden. Rooted in years of experience and supported by research, Larson presents fifteen guiding principles of garden-based education.

To learn more about the publication and to download or order a free copy of the book, please visit the Wisconsin School Garden Network website.

Established in 2004, the Wisconsin Partnership Program has awarded more than 400 research, education and community partnership grants totaling more than $180 million, aimed at improving the health and well-being of the people of Wisconsin.