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Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life

reviewed by Guiliano Reis - August 09, 2013

coverTitle: Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life
Author(s): Dilafruz R. Williams & Jonathan D. Brown
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 978-0415899826, Pages: 238, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

In 1957, the BBC broadcasted a now famous April Fool’s prank. It consisted in a three-minute report on a family in Southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from fictitious spaghetti trees. As a result, a number of viewers reportedly phoned into the BBC asking how they could grow their own pasta plants. Aside from any possible explanation as to why the hoax worked—some argue that back then this Italian dish was considered an exotic delicacy not widely eaten in the UK—the fact is that it evidenced that there was room for people (anywhere!) to know more about how their food gets to their table. Even to this day—almost 60 years later!—the average urban child knows very little about how food is grown. (Curiously, the idea for the spaghetti harvest joke grew out of a remark from one of the BBC producer’s Viennese school teachers who often teasingly said to his class: “Boys, you're so stupid, you'd believe me if I told you that spaghetti grows on trees”1). For instance, who hasn’t heard those anecdotal reports of children in our cities who think that their food is “grown” at the local supermarket? (I, for one, have tried to fool my own daughters, but without much success). This is in sharp contrast with the current food insecurity environment of our days and the (perhaps too late) conclusion that “farmers are the most important people in the world “ (Cribbs, 2010, p.131). More so: this lack of experience in/with nature is possibly at the root of some of the ecological challenges that our society currently faces, including obesity, social justice and environmental injustice.

This book adopts the topic of food-based gardens in schools (or “learning gardens”) as a means to persuade the reader of the importance of infusing sustainability into our education systems. Although the educational significance of sustainability has been extensively discussed in the last three decades—to the point where it is possibly better known these days to teachers, students and their parents than some of the gardening ideas presented in the book itself—there seems to exist an infinite number of ways in which the notion of sustainability can be translated into tangible pedagogical initiatives. Therefore, although school gardens are not a new practice on their own, they are approached in the book from the perspective (or metaphor) of the living soil, as a foundation for creating interdisciplinary school curricula that bridges theory and practice. The metaphor is well justified: the authors are self-proclaimed passionate gardeners and as such they know well of our dependency on the earth that we walk on (and that is mostly covered in asphalt and cement in our cities and often unfairly associated with useless dirt or unimportant low forms of life that are better kept hidden). In sum, this is a book about how our students can learn to live sustainably—and therefore become more socially and environmentally just—by simply growing food in their schoolyards. In this context, the authors promote the view that learning gardens are not just “two-dimensional spaces dedicated to sustaining the visceral needs of human and non-humans communities” (p. 106). Instead, they are deemed to be “areas created to restore balance to estranged relationships among human and biotic community members” (p. 111).

The book is structurally divided in three parts. The first one lays the theoretical and conceptual framework of sustainability adopted by the authors. The second part is devoted to exploring in more detail each one of the seven principles that link pedagogy and pedology (study of soil) in regards to learning gardens. These are: cultivating a sense of place, fostering curiosity and wonder, discovering rhythm and scale, valuing biocultural diversity, embracing practical experience, nurturing interconnectedness and awakening the senses. The third (and last) part is a collection of practitioner voices. On that note, all three parts are percolated with stories of successful school garden experiences that the authors either came to know or lived themselves over the years. Likewise, each chapter includes a section on the pedagogical implications of the different topics in addition to examples from learning gardens.

A number of themes in the book will likely not provoke a sense of novelty in the average reader. For instance, place-based education, experiential learning, and embodied learning have already been extensively explored elsewhere. On the other hand, the soil metaphor does carry an appeal to those in the academic audience to whom the book was originally directed. Soil is an aspect (layer) of our planet that is usually relegated to a place of unimportance. In the book, on the contrary, it is adjectified as life-giving soil. More so: it can be seen as a metaphor in itself for those neglected (hidden or buried) topics in education, like food security and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

Two of the main attractions of the book are Chapter Six (“Discovering Rhythm and Scale”) and Chapter Seven (“Valuing Biocultural Diversity”). The latter provokes the reader to consider rhythms and cycles other than the ones imposed by our current lifestyles, as means to “recalibrate our sense of time and space” (p. xii). It suggests that people should ground their time on event-based scales (kairos) rather than exclusively on chronological (and linear) ones. As for the former, its ambition is to “add a cultural dimension to our understanding of food [in order to bring] gardens to life as symbolic spaces connected with our lives not just as inner organs” (p. 106). Time and culture are wise choices for any discussions around sustainability in/for education as they are intertwined with all aspects of modern urban life. For example, take one of the emblematic symptoms of our consumerist lifestyle: the emergence of “fast food values” (Waters, 2005). They are: food is permanently cheap and abundant, resources are infinite and it's perfectly okay to waste, eating is primarily about fueling up in as little time as possible, food should taste exactly the same everywhere, where food comes from or how fresh it is doesn't matter, advertisement confers value, and work is to be avoided at all costs. Looking closely, aren’t these so called “values” about the way we culturally gauge the worth of our time? Hence, if we change the way we understand both (culture and time), this might open our minds to consider different non-predatory ways to relate with our human and non-human surroundings.

In the end, the soil perspective is suitable for at least two more reasons. First, it serves to debunk the common superstition amongst the population that food dropped on the ground will not be significantly contaminated with germs if it is picked up within five seconds of being dropped. Second, it supports the ancient conviction that we are inevitably made out of what comes from the ground—after all, “for out of it [we] were taken; for [we] are dust, and to dust [we] shall return” (Gn 3, 19).


1. http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/archive/permalink/the_swiss_spaghetti_harvest


Cribb, J. (2010). The coming famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Waters, A. (2005). Fast food values and slow food values. In: M. Stone and Z. Barlow (Eds.), Ecological literacy: educating our children for a sustainable world (pp. 49-55). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 09, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17209, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:21:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Guiliano Reis
    University of Ottawa
    E-mail Author
    GIULIANO REIS is an associate professor of science education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. He the co-author of Authentic Science Revisited (2008) and a member of the editorial board of Cultural Studies of Science Education (CSSE) and the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST). His research interests include science and environmental education in diverse learning settings, science and the environment in the media, qualitative research and discourse analysis.
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