Real Stories Blog

Teacher Spotlight — Martha Brown and Alison Wilkinson

This first story is from Martha Brown.

“Each grade level harvested potatoes from their garden bed and donated their potatoes to the Salvation Army, Irving chapter. We kept a chart totaling each grade level’s collection and used fractions when appropriate. We were trying to add up what we had collected so far, and one group of third graders were struggling with adding 4 1/2 pounds plus 6 3/4 pounds. We went back over to the scales and weighed 1/2 pounds in potatoes. We took those potatoes off the scale and then weighed out 3/4 pounds. Once we determined we had 1/2 and 3/4 pounds we put 3/4 pounds on the scale and added the 1/2 pounds one potato at a time. Learners saw the scale reach the 1 pound mark and then instantly knew it was going to go to 1 and 1/4 pounds. These learners understood more deeply about how to add fractions than if they had just been working with pencil and paper. The real world experience of weighing vegetables gave them such a valuable lesson. This group reworked their original problem and were able to solve it. We continued on to weigh our onions in ounces after that with student success!”

These next two stories are from Alison Wilkinson, shared by Martha Brown”

“Alison had given her 3rd grade dual language learners a brief lesson in the classroom on the properties of matter but knew some of her learners were struggling with the vocabulary. Alison took her class to the outdoor learner area and followed a REAL School Gardens lesson on the properties of matter. After the students collected about 15 solids in baggies with a partner, Alison modeled how to sort one of the baggies describing the properties of the objects as rough or smooth. It was then the learners turn to sort as they saw fit. Alison saw her struggling learners use the vocabulary words “properties” and “matter” correctly in sentences. Her students were extremely excited and found other ways to sort their objects. One group showed her their sort by manmade and things found in nature. They were very pleased with their work. Alison extended the lesson by having each group take a picture of their sort. She brought it back into the classroom and each group shared their picture and the class had to guess their sort. Alison said her class truly grasped the meaning of properties of matter after being outdoors with the lesson and asked if they could collect different objects on another day.”

“Alison presented a lesson on sound energy to her class in the outdoor learning center. She wanted her class to have a better understanding of what sound energy looked like in everyday settings while understanding vocabulary such as pitch and volume. She modeled with a student partner the way they would look for sound in the outdoors. She and her partner recorded a video with sound only on the iPad, crumpling leaves together. They then took a picture of the crumpled leaves with their iPad. Alison and her partnered described the sound as a medium pitch and low volume with crackling sound. At that point the dual language partners found their own objects and recorded sound and took pictures. They then took turns and let the class try to guess their sound by describing it’s pitch and volume and other sound attributes. The class was excited to see who correctly guessed when the partners shared their picture. The learners loved this lesson and struggling learners quickly caught on how to use the words pitch and volume when describing sound.”

Summer = Stemapalooza in the Southeast

This past week, the head of our instructional team traveled to our Southeast Region for STEMfest, where hundreds of teachers gather to learn the best teaching stemapalooza-picture-of-vanessa-for-blogtechniques and share best practices.    You  can check out some lesson plans from different participants, watch a short video of Vanessa at work,  see pictures from the sessions, and read some of the feedback she received below.


“I really enjoyed your session over the past two days. It has really sparked some great, practical ideas for how to start engaging my students in meaningful learning experiences by taking their learning outdoors. My favorite part of the session was the time that you allowed for us to plan lessons that we could take back to our classrooms using your online portal. I feel confident in taking ideas from some of these lessons to mold them to fit my students and our state standards. You were very helpful in walking around and guiding us towards making effective lessons for our students.”

“I loved that you pointed out that outdoor learning does not have to be an all day every day type of thing, it is used to engage our students and allow them to have connections in order to have a learning experience that will stick with them for years to come.”

“Thank you so much for all your help! You have given us some great ideas for how to move forward in planning our lessons for our upcoming STEM certification process. This was probably the most meaningful and effective professional development session I have attended!”

“I definitely now think of the garden as a literacy classroom whereas in the past I thought of it as science and math classroom. I also feel that I will add the outdoors as a weekly activity instead of when I can fit it in.Thank you so much for the abundance of ideas and resources.”

“I am a nature person and am so passionate about teaching outdoors. This workshop validated that taking children outdoors can be so meaningful and relevant to my students. I have so many ideas now about how its not just about science, but how I can incorporate literacy into the outdoors.I am excited to share with our school administration and staff about what your company offers and how they can start utilizing the outdoors more!! Thank you so much!!!”

“Thank you so much I learned a great amount of information about using our outdoor classroom. A co worker and myself talked about how we could use for example a compost bin in our school after watching the video of the kids outside. Our school is working on becoming stem certified so our principal is very interested and encouraging teachers to think outside of the box. I love science and now will go back to my team to discuss how can we use our outside space when we are teaching ELA or Math. I would love to have someone come out to out to our school to work with a few teachers regarding stem. We are a charter school and sadly we do not have all the funding public schools do. “

“I am super excited to bring everything that I’ve learned the past two days back to my STEM team. About two weeks ago, my principal asked me to look into starting a STEM program at the school. I have created a team of teachers who are interested. I am jumping in head first with this, and before attending this session, I didn’t know much about outdoor learning. Many of the lessons we worked with fit perfectly with my ELA and Science standards. I enjoyed the videos we watched today and will go back to watch and observe the instructor. I am also looking forward to meeting with my principal and telling her the many reasons why outdoor learning is important. I learned a lot the past two days, and am very thankful to have had this experience. You were awesome!”

“Thank you for the great information that was presented. I enjoyed learning about ways to integrate curriculum — especially the writing portion which is often so difficult for kids because they’re not interested in the topic. Also, the information on ways to journal more effectively were awesome. Sketching using shapes, writing in complete sentences, etc. Reminding us as teachers to stand facing the sun instead of the kids facing the sun was a fun takeaway.”

“Thank you so much for devoting your time to us over the last couple of days. The 2nd teachers at Kemp are taking away so much from this training. The Real School Gardens website is amazing. We got so many great lesson ideas from that. I loved hearing all the ways we can integrate science and literacy. The behavior management ideas were also beneficial. I am looking forward to getting my classroom outside for learning this upcoming school year! Thanks again!!”

Spring tips

Spring is here, and everyone is excited to get into the outdoor classroom.  To make the most of your class time outdoors, Edna Chirico, the Executive Director of our Carolinas Region, shares some great tips!

  • Remember to treat your outdoor space as a classroom.
    • Ensuring students are holding their composition books, pencils, and other learning tools helps remind students they’re here to learn.
    • Before heading out, instruct students on where to assemble to receive class instructions and what they are to accomplish while outside.
    • Many schools choose to work with students to develop garden rules and post them outside.
    • Leading the class in an outdoor classroom pledge gives students another cue that the space is to be treated as a classroom
    • Be sure to point out landmarks students are not to go beyond.
    • Check out other outdoor classroom management techniques on our online Coaching Center.  On the lesson menu, under Type, search for Classroom Management.  (email if you need help logging on)
    • Our friends at Boston Schoolyard have some more great tips.
  • Students and adults alike are excited to get to work, which can create a flurry of unfocused activity that ends up not producing results
    • Pay attention to planting and seed instructions.  Not only will your plants be more successful, but students can learn so much from informational text.
    • Soil temperature can be measured. Just because it feels warm to you doesn’t mean the seeds will thrive. Use a soil or compost thermometer to gather even more data.
    • Look at days to maturity and compare to your school calendars.
      • Lots of fruits and vegetables mature in the summer, but who will be there to harvest them?
      • We’ve had lots of great luck with radishes because they mature quickly.
        • Here’s a delicious Radish Leaf Pesto recipe, courtesy of the Carolinas Region Nutrition team!
        • 1 cup, packed radish leaves; ¼ cup olive oil ; 1 clove garlic; 1/8 teaspoon salt.  Place all ingredients into a blender, and blend until smooth. Drizzle over quartered radishes.
      • Check out our May Maintenance Tips on our online Coaching Center.
  • Research how to enrich your soil with organic fertilizer or compost.
  • Think about companion planting to maximize resources like sun and water, and minimize pest and weed issues.
    • Certain flowers like Daisy, Marigold, Clover, Bee Balm, and Coneflower are good companions for vegetable gardens.
    • Learn more here.
  • A manageable learning garden can’t feed a whole class, so look for high-impact plants where every kid can get a little taste of success.
    • Consider growing herbs like rosemary, basil, oregano, chives, parsley, sage, thyme and mint.
    • Be careful with mint, thyme and oregano, because they can be a bit invasive.  Plant them in clay pots if you want to keep them in check, or go ahead and let them take over an unused area.   Then students can pick as much as they like!
  • Prepare for visitors, both pollinators and pests
    • Tracking Monarch Butterflies from Mexico through the Carolinas.  It’s an amazing lesson in life-cycles and geography.
    • Have milkweed and other food and nectar sources in your garden and teach children about habitats
    • You may find other visitors to your garden as well – mice, rabbits, birds, etc.
      • Watching for signs of pests and other visitors can be an impactful lesson.  What circumstantial evidence can students gather to determine what types of animals are using the space?
      • Schools that have issues with rodents should make sure there are no food scraps in their compost.

Good luck, and enjoy using the outdoor classroom!

Suzannah Koilpillai to Lead New Southeast Region


After an extensive search led by People Performance Resources, LLC, REAL School Gardens suzannah-high-res-croppedis proud to introduce Suzannah Koilpillai, who will be the Executive Director of our new Southeast region, headquartered in Atlanta.

REAL School Gardens gets students excited about school and more engaged in learning with effective outdoor lessons in science, math, literacy and nutrition education.  By training teachers to use standards-based outdoor lessons, partner schools have seen increases in standardized test score pass rates of up to 12-15 percent. The REAL School Gardens Professional Learning Program has also been proven to boost teacher effectiveness and job satisfaction and improve student engagement in learning.

“We are thrilled that Suzannah is at the helm of this new region,” said Jeanne McCarty, CEO of REAL School Gardens.  “She has a proven track record of building win/win partnerships, which is just what we want for our newest region.”

Before she was tapped to lead REAL School Gardens’ Southeast Region, Koilpillai used her leadership skills and sales savvy to boost B2B, B2C, and e-commerce sales for Napp Deady and Hill Street Warehouse, two Atlanta based retail/wholesale companies servicing the hospitality, landscape, and design industries throughout the US.  She was most recently the VP of Sales leading her team to expand the company nationally by creating new offerings and partnership opportunities. Outside of work, Koilpillai volunteers for organizations dedicated to improving the health and educational opportunities in low-income communities.  Koilpillai is married to a life-long educator and has two young sons, and her family fuels her desire to help all kids receive access to a great education and healthy foods.

Koilpillai says, “I’m thrilled to combine my background in sales and leadership with my desire to make an impact in education. My husband was a teacher for years, so I know how much teachers want to help their kids succeed. And as my own kids became school aged, I saw that every kid in the class would get excited about learning when teachers gave them the chance to really experience new concepts, explore the natural world, and make discoveries themselves.  I’m also passionate about healthy eating, and REAL School Gardens has found a way to effectively embed nutrition education into the regular school day!  I know our region will benefit enormously from the program.  I’m excited to bring REAL School Gardens to my hometown.”

About REAL School Gardens
REAL School Gardens provides extensive teacher training on how to use school gardens to boost academics and builds outdoor classrooms in low-income schools.  In 2016, the organization launched a strategic growth plan to bring REAL School Gardens to a total of six geographic regions and 15 markets by 2020.  Once the expansion is complete, the organization will engage 225,000 children each year in daily, REAL-world learning.  For more information, visit

Green Acres Full Day Training

We started our Professional Learning Program at Green Acres Elementary in Atlanta earlier this month and everyone had a blast.  We got some wonderful feedback on the surveys.

“This training was so engaging and informative..really got us excited about taking our students outside”

“The garden can be used for more than just science…it extends across content..even art and music”

“Our trainers were so enthusiastic and only complaint was that it wasn’t long enough”

We can’t wait for our next visit!







Maple Trees in Bloom!

Did you know that trees bloom? The tree that is in bloom right NOW in Charlotte is the Red Maple. It’s the tree that, from a distance, looks like a red haze. A maple tree is a perfect writing lesson waiting to happen. Locate a maple tree on your school property. Take you class outside and observe it closely. Look at and feel the bark. Sketch the shape of the tree. (All trees have a distinctive shape.) Use a hand lens to observe the flowers.  Brainstorm a list of words to describe the tree and the flowers.maple-bloom

If you and your class continue to observe your maple tree, you will soon be rewarded with leaves sprouting and ‘helicopters,’ which are actually the seeds! Keep observing it over time. Who knows what you and your students can add to your Tree Journaling!

Hint: Use an iPad or your cell phone to take pictures of your tree. Make the photos and observations into an amazing writing bulletin board to showcase your students’ work!  Remember: Scientific work is public!

Do you want a place for your students to contribute their observations to a scientific community? Check our Project BudBurst, a citizen science project.  Project BudBurst is on a mission – to get you outside taking a moment to observe how plants in your community change with the seasons. When you share yourobservations with us, they become part of an ecological record. Spending time outside with plants is calming, educational, and just plain fun.

Go to:

Photo Credits:


Childhood Education Innovations Magazine

We are so pleased to have our word profiled in Childhood Education Innovations.  This is an academic publication by a group called the Association for Childhood Education International.


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Childhood Education: Innovations on 20 March 2018, available online:

Growing Experiential Learning for the Future: REAL School Gardens

The new 4th grader, Camila, was very quiet. She scored in the lowest quartile on her standardized tests, and didn’t engage much with anything or anyone, often simply staring out the window.

A change occurred for Camila, however, when her teachers started working with REAL School Gardens, taking her class outside to learn concepts through hands-on experiential lessons. “She became a different child,” one teacher marveled. “She loved everything about the learning garden. Her confidence surged.”

Full of life, the outdoor classroom sparked Camila’s curiosity. Her teacher said, “She relished the opportunity to explore outside, asking and answering questions about every subject. And she understood difficult concepts behind the lessons because she observed them in the real world, seeing firsthand what things meant and why they mattered. She wasn’t understanding the concepts of angles at first, but once we did an exercise on which way to point solar panels, it clicked.”

After using the outdoor classroom regularly, Camila blossomed into a confident and deeply engaged student, working her way up from Ds to Bs and passing all of her standardized tests. Real stories such as Camila’s demonstrate how experiential learning, when connected to a simple real-world setting, can alter the trajectory of a child’s education.

Giving All Students a “REAL” Education
Too many children in low-income schools spend the day feeling disengaged, listening to too many lectures and spending too much time looking at screens or performing repetitive tasks. When overused, those teaching methods erode opportunities to build the strong foundational understanding needed for future success and the long-term love of learning that fuels successful students and teachers alike.

Hands-on experiential lessons are one way to help keep children excited about school and more engaged in their lessons. Children also love being surrounded by a rich and dynamic learning environment. Yet many teachers, especially those in low-income schools, lack the tools and training they need to give students hands-on lessons in an enriching environment.

Since 2007, REAL School Gardens has pioneered a simple way for low-income elementary schools to implement effective real-world, experiential learning programs. REAL School Gardens partners with low-income schools to spend years training teachers how to lead effective experiential lessons outdoors in every subject. Math, science, and language arts are all more meaningful and memorable when conducted outdoors in an engaging, hands-on way.

Because many low-income schools lack a useable learning garden, REAL School Gardens also secures corporate funders and works with their employee volunteers to transform outdoor spaces into dynamic living classrooms in just one day.

Why Experiential Learning Works
REAL School Gardens focuses on experiential learning because it’s been shown to effectively reduce the achievement gap. Experiential learning can increase both teacher effectiveness and student engagement, two of the largest school-based determinants in long-term student success.

Experiential learning (also called problem or project-based learning, or inquiry-based learning) helps increase achievement for all students, regardless of their background. It also can improve social-emotional skills and help build “21st-century skills,” such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. Not only do most students prefer experiential learning to more common book-based styles of teaching, teachers find that experiential learning also helps the students better understand more complex material, use their knowledge to solve different sorts of problems, and apply that knowledge in new contexts. This is the sort of genuine, deep, and long-lasting learning children need to succeed in school and in life.

Once properly trained, teachers in the REAL School Gardens Professional Learning Program embrace experiential learning because they see that their students understand the material more quickly, and they spend less time dealing with behavior issues. One teacher even commented, “The students you struggle with most in the classroom are excellent leaders in the outdoor classroom.” By learning how to feed students’ inherent curiosity, teachers spend less time trying to push disinterested kids to learn or trying to redirect bored disruptive students. With those two challenges addressed, teachers are able to put their energy into supporting students based on their individual needs.

Why Take Learning Outdoors?
An outdoor classroom can be a powerful instructional tool because it harnesses children’s curiosity about the natural world. Children are born explorers, and the natural world is an endlessly rich and physical experience where children can use all their senses to investigate. It is also an accessible and engaging place where children are permitted to touch the things that interest them. The outdoors is highly dynamic; there’s always something new happening, and children can see firsthand how things grow and change over time.

Because of the sheer volume of information and learning opportunities present in the outdoors, teachers report that returning to the same outdoor space for different classes enables cross-curricular learning. The data children collect for a science lesson can easily be used during math to calculate growth rates or patterns; the attributes children noticed in a language arts lesson can be valuable in a future science lesson on adaptive traits.

Learning outdoors instantly imbues lessons with relevance, purpose, and real-world meaning. Children appreciate lessons clearly grounded in their everyday reality, and love having a job to do. If children decide to plant carrots and radishes, they’re eager to get to work and figure out how to divide up the vegetable bed. This mathematical task is much more meaningful and compelling than mentally dividing pieces of an imaginary pie. Unlike their experiences in a school’s computer or chemistry lab, all children can easily reference previous outdoor experiences. Also, they have access to the outdoors outside of school, effectively connecting what they learn at school with the rest of their lives.

Since most schools have underutilized outdoor space, adding a few teacher-friendly features can quickly activate that area for academics. And compared to the time, cost, and paperwork involved in adding new indoor space to a school, outdoor classrooms are quick, easy, and inexpensive to construct. Paired together, experiential lessons in an outdoor classroom can be a teacher’s most powerful tool.

Effective Experiential Learning in the REAL World.
When we think of “outdoor education,” we often envision nature hikes. While a nature hike is a worthwhile activity, it is not necessarily aligned to the standards teachers need to address. Furthermore, most trails or parks are too far away to be of daily use to teachers. To help teachers harness children’s curiosity about the natural world and use that intrinsic drive to support measurable academic gains, REAL School Gardens’ highly experienced Instructional Coaches train teachers how to keep students interested and engaged in learning with experiential lessons in convenient outdoor environments, such as a garden just outside the classroom.  REAL School Gardens Instructional Coaches have on average 18 years of classroom experience as well as a Master’s in Teaching.

Experiential Lessons With the 5E Model
All REAL School Gardens lessons are aligned to each district’s scope and sequence and follow the “5E” instructional model, which is designed to boost student engagement and long-term understanding, especially in science. The 5E model flips the more common classroom structure, in which a teacher lectures on a subject, and models how students should do a new task. Following a more constructivist approach, the teacher gives students a question to answer, allow students to explore, then uses the students’ own findings to explain the concept, empowering students to deepen their understanding in math, science, and language arts.

In a standard lesson on area, children sit at their desks and look at a piece of paper where two-dimensional rectangles already have pretend lengths and widths attributed to them. Or they simply count out the boxes within rectangles drawn on graph paper. They’ll eventually be able to produce the correct answers following this approach, but will likely struggle as the tasks become more abstract, more complex, and they need to build on calculating area as foundational knowledge.

In an experiential outdoor area lesson, REAL School Gardens’ Instructional Coaches start by telling children it is time to plant the vegetable beds outside. With a real job to do, children eagerly flex their spatial reasoning, moving around in a three-dimensional space to measure the beds themselves. Then, using different multiplication algorithms to calculate the area, children gain a deep, real, and lasting understanding of the concept.

Language Arts
Experiential learning outdoors also shows benefits for subjects such as language arts.  Often, students will read an information text, such as one describing erosion or ecosystems.  Then the students will go outside to look for real-world examples and use that to prove or disprove what they’ve read. Instructional Coaches say a favorite lesson is to have each student pick a particular leaf, and then write down as many relevant descriptors as they can. After the students place all the leaves in a pile, the teacher picks out written descriptions one at a time and, reading them aloud, works to match the descriptions to a particular leaf. Students see firsthand the value of enhanced descriptions, as the teachers easily match the leaves to their owners using the students’ descriptions. They also learn about different types of descriptive language, such as adjectives and similes.

Teachers particularly appreciate using the outdoor classroom as a living laboratory to support elementary science instruction. While the outdoors is a perfect staging area for explorations and experiments around the life-cycles of plants and animals, the weather, energy, or the environment, many elementary teachers lack an extensive scientific background. So in addition to demonstrating how to use the outdoor classroom to support experiential science lessons, REAL School Gardens’ Instructional Coaches focus on increasing teachers’ scientific content knowledge, instructional confidence, and daily practice.

Also, by weaving basic science background knowledge into other subjects, REAL School Gardens helps increase the total volume of instruction students receive, building a strong foundation of scientific understanding in elementary school. For example, the math lesson mentioned before can easily address plants’ reproductive cycles, and the language arts lesson could begin a conversation on the food chain if students notice their leaves have been eaten.

Personalizing Any Lesson
Locating lessons in the real-world also enables teachers to use certain personalized learning techniques. Students will naturally gravitate toward things they’re curious about, fueling their drive to learn more. REAL School Gardens lesson plans have built-in methods of differentiation, allowing teachers to add challenges for more advanced students, while increasing supports for those struggling with a concept. This ability to adjust instruction within a lesson ensures that children on either end of the mastery spectrum remain engaged while still gaining the benefits of working as a group.

The Need for Effective Teacher Professional Development
Why aren’t teachers leading more experiential lessons outdoors? Simply put, they lack the tools and the training to do so. Experiential outdoor instruction fundamentally changes both where and how they teach. Teachers are under a great deal of pressure to demonstrate that their children are learning the required material in the designated time. Therefore, they approach any additional work, or any perceived loss in instructional time, with caution. To show teachers first-hand the effectiveness of experiential outdoor instruction, REAL School Gardens provides high-quality professional development, useful spaces, and ongoing support.

Often, teachers don’t look forward to professional development sessions. They are most likely to dreaded the ones that require them to sit in large groups for days, watching slideshows that may or may not apply to their day-to-day instructional needs. This format makes any real improvements to instructional practice difficult to implement.

REAL School Gardens works to empower teachers through a 2+ year professional learning program, using both groups sessions and one-on-one instructional coaching to help teachers use the outdoor classroom to engage students in experiential lessons that deepen understanding and accelerate learning. Group training sessions to demonstrate the more universal outdoor instructional teaching techniques are conducted on-site in the outdoor classroom, divided out by subject and grade level.

Then, ongoing one-on-one instructional coaching sessions take place during class, where instructional coaches work side-by-side with teachers and their students to demonstrate best practices and support teachers to develop and lead their own lessons. Sessions are customized to each teacher and matched to their established curriculum to ensure teachers aren’t being asked to do anything extra or redundant. Because the Instructional Coaches are “meeting teachers where they are,” both literally and figuratively, teachers report that they can effectively and immediately implement the new teaching strategies.

Building Effective Outdoor Classrooms
While engaging experiential lessons are highly effective in any location, we’ve seen their impact is particularly impressive when employed outside in a natural environment. Since many schools lack engaging and accessible outdoor environments of their own, however, REAL School Gardens often has to build them.

To make it as easy as possible for teachers to take lessons outside, the learning gardens REAL School Gardens builds are true outdoor classrooms, with paved pathways and gathering areas, pavilions to provide shade, seating areas, and white boards. These features help teachers conduct class and remind students that they are in a learning environment, not a playground. A well-equipped learning garden becomes an integral part of the school, as important to academic success as a library.

Additional learning garden features support a range of academic lessons. Waterfalls and rain barrels help children understand the water cycle and calculate volume. Animal habitats support lessons on life-cycles, evolutionary adaptations, and even different forms of energy. Specialized sandboxes and construction areas are used as earth science stations where students create and shape different landforms. Weather monitoring stations allow students to study the weather for science and track data trends for math, while teachers are also able to connect that information to larger lessons on geography. Organic vegetable, herb, and perennial beds support a multitude of lessons on measurement, area, volume, division, and fractions, while teaching children about nutrition and getting them excited to make healthier choices. Throughout all these lessons, children also build an awareness of and connection to the environment; taking care of the garden helps support environmental education goals.

REAL Results
As teachers become more effective when using the outdoors as an instructional tool, students gain critical thinking skills, solve real-world problems, and make cross-curricular connections. When student engagement increases, class time becomes more productive, creating a more satisfying work environment for teachers.

Ongoing studies by PEER Associates show that teachers in the REAL School Gardens training program become measurably more effective. Teacher effectiveness and job satisfaction increase 50% over the course of the professional learning program, posting gains after each professional learning session. Almost all teachers, 94%, report that their students are more engaged with our lessons, and that includes “specials” instructors, such as physical education and music, who use the learning garden less frequently for instruction. School district data show that standardized test proficiency rates in schools that completed the REAL School Gardens program increased by 12-15%, with the highest gains in science. Regression analysis isolating the REAL School Gardens program impact attributes 1/3 of that growth to the program.

All children deserve hands-on, experiential learning opportunities. School districts would do well to invest in effective and inexpensive solutions that work for teachers, students, and facilities. By providing high-quality instructional coaching in experiential outdoor learning, and turning unused outdoor spaces into functional outdoor classrooms, districts can quickly give students of all backgrounds a stronger foundation of content knowledge to help them succeed in school and in life.

Learning Gardens 101

Came across this little pamphlet we created years ago for the schools in areas where we’re not building yet and the information holds up.  That’s one of the nice things about our “Keep it Simple” core value, good things never go out of style.

We created this helpful brochure because while we can provide our Professional Learning Program to folks almost anywhere, we only lead our Big Dig projects and bring in corporate volunteers in areas where we have offices.  Let us know what your experiences are starting a learning garden or an outdoor classroom, and let us know if you need our help to activate it for academics!


Advice for Getting Started Establish a Team

It takes a community to raise a garden.

  • School administrators, teachers, families, students and even community members should be involved in the planning, installation, and ongoing maintenance. Think twice about moving forward if only 2 – 3 people are committed.
  • Strive for representation from each grade level on the garden team.
  • The more people involved from the beginning, the more ownership there will be over the long term.

Seek Funding

  • Consider approaching campus administrators first. If the garden is a high enough priority, they might be able to allocate funds from the science or math budgets.

Start Small
Install just one feature at a time, and add more as the demand grows and maintenance proves to be manageable.

Key Design Features that are Simple to Install

Gathering Space
Ask for a donation of cut tree trunks from a local arborist and set them up in a shady area. Install an outdoor whiteboard or purchase a portable whiteboard that can be easily accessed by the whole staff

Perennial Flower Garden
A 20’ x 4’ space can fit a lot of plants while still being easy to maintain.

Compost Area
Wire bins are easy to use, effective, and affordable compared to other store bought composting systems.
You can also just compost with a pile on the ground.

Raised Vegetable Beds
Cedar wood is recommended. There are other creative options available, but avoid anything coated in toxic substances.

Try to have a class set of hand trowels, a few shovels, at least one wheelbarrow, and a water key (if applicable). It should be simple for anyone from the staff to access – use a portable caddy or install an
outdoor shed. Use a combination lock that everyone on staff can easily memorize.

Systems for Long Term Success
The more of these systems a school adopts, the more likely the garden is to be successful for years to come.

  • A garden committee that meets regularly
  • A system for tracking garden usage by teachers and volunteers
  • Family/community garden work days
  • Local volunteers (parents, neighbors, Boy Scouts, Master Gardeners, etc.)
  • Grant writing to suppor the garden
  • An active composting system
  • Easy access to garden supplies for all school staff
  • A clear school year and summer maintenance plan that shares responsibilities
  • Publications about the garden such as blog entries or school newsletters
  • Integration of the garden during special events such as family science/math night, etc.


  • Real World Measurements – How long are vegetable beds, leaves, caterpillars?
  • Geometry – Look for examples of symmetry, lines, angles, and 2D/3D shapes.
  • Perimeter and Area – These concepts are so much easier to teach with a raised vegetable bed!

It would be easier to list which science concepts CAN’T be taught outdoors!

  • Earth Science – Look for real world examples of erosion/weathering and explore samples of soil dug up right in the schoolyard. Make real world weather observations!
  • Life Science – Hunt for insects in their various stages (grub worms found underground are a great example of a beetle in its larval stage). Watch plants go from seed to flower to seed in the perennial or vegetable bed.
  • Physical Science – Force and motion come to life when utilizing simple machines (a hand trowel is made up of a wedge and a lever).

Language Arts

  • Descriptive Writing – Have students use as many adjectives, metaphors, and similes as possible to describe concrete objects in the garden.
  • Making Inferences – Let students create riddles for different plants in the garden and have a partner infer which they’ve written about.
  • Text to World Connections – How does the garden relate to what students are reading?

Social Studies

  • Mapping Skills – Practice using a compass to map a space.
  • Agriculture – How have agrarian societies changed over the years?

In the Carolinas, It’s Sweet Potato Time!

— By Suzanne Beckman

In the temperate Carolinas, it’s almost November, and we still have green leaves and no frost on our pumpkins. It is, however, sweet potato time. Growing sweet potatoes in my school’s garden is one of my favorite group of lessons.sweet-potatoes-1

I had never grown sweet potatoes before. I didn’t realize that growing sweet potatoes is almost a year long process that begins in February by starting sweet potato “slips,” or little plants that sprout from a mature sweet potato. Inspired by a session at a REAL School Garden Evergreen training, I enlisted the help of the big kids, in particular, a boy named Corey who loved to garden, but struggled with the rest of his school experience. In this endeavor, Corey became the leader of the pack. He carefully watched the young sprouts growing in his classroom window. He conscientiously checked to be sure they didn’t run out of water, researched how to care for “his babies” and took pride at explaining the process of growing sweet potato slips to anyone who would listen.
The great thing about sweet potatoes is that once planted, they require little care. I recommend them as a garden cover crop during the summer at schools that don’t have a summer garden. Not only do they keep the weeds down by sprawling across their designated bed, they also cover the surrounding area by a yard or two and thrive by producing beautiful morning glory like purple flowers. The kids can’t believe their eyes when they return in August to see what their planting efforts have done while they were on break.

At the end of October or the beginning of November, it’s sweet potato harvesting time. The kids dig the sweet potatoes by hand so that they don’t damage the tender skin. Damaged skin leads to mold and rot. I remember that once I explained the process, the students took to their task like bees to honey. sweet-potatoes-2One student exclaimed, “I feel like I’m digging for buried treasure. This is better than finding GOLD because we get to these!” They were hooked. Long after I was ready to quit digging, my students were certain that there were more sweet potatoes to be found. You know what? They were right! The sweet potato vines had grown through the landscape fabric that lined the bed, under the wooden sides of the bed and in the mulch surrounding the bed. The kiddos weren’t satisfied that their job was done until they had ferreted out every possible location that a sweet potato could grow.

What was the result, you may ask? From two 4’ x 8’ beds, hundreds of sweet potatoes of all sizes, from 10-pound whoppers to tiny fingerlings and colors, orange, purple and white. Sparky, the garden cart, strained under the weight of the over-filled loads of sweet potatoes that we took them inside to cure. After about 2 weeks of curing, they are ready for culinary use. We enjoyed sweet potato smoothies, sweet potato wedges, sweet potato pancakes and sweet potato muffins. The students experienced the entire progression of sweet potato development: planting, tending, harvesting, preparing and eating. What a memorable learning experience!sweet-potatoes-6

Here are a few academic connections:

  • Writing: Another school heard about our sweet potato success! Using your science journal, describe how to grow sweet potato slips, plant sweet potatoes, or harvest sweet potatoes. Be sure to use enough details that the students could grow their own sweet potatoes from your work.
  • Reading: Read informational texts and/or view videos to determine how to grow sweet potato slips, plant sweet potatoes, or harvest sweet potatoes. Follow the directions to plant and grow sweet potatoes.
  • sweet-potatoes-5

  • Math: Weigh sweet potatoes that are harvested, based on price per pound at the grocery store calculate the value of the sweet potato crop.

Mary Freeman leads Texas team

After an extensive search, REAL School Gardens is proud to introduce Mary Freeman, CFRE, as the new Executive Director for our Texas Region. She takes over the position from Scott Feille, who’s been promoted to Vice President of Regional Operations and Impact in our national office.mary-freeman-photo-250x250
Mary comes to us from Reading Partners and is a 20-year veteran of the nonprofit sector, including The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. She holds a BBA in Marketing from SMU and an MBA in Nonprofit Management from the University of Dallas.
As Executive Director, Mary will lead the next phase of growth in the Texas region, and she is committed to REAL School Gardens’ goal of transforming education through experiential outdoor learning.  Her bio is below.


Before taking on the role of Texas Regional Executive Director for REAL School Gardens, Mary Freeman combined her skills in marketing and fundraising to help lift some of Dallas’ top nonprofits to new heights.
Mary took a very different path into nonprofit leadership than many of her peers.  She went back to finish college in her 30s, and earned both her college degree and her masters over the course of more than 12 years while working full-time and raising a family.
While earning her first degree, Mary followed in her parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps, and began her nonprofit career with The Salvation Army, scaling and streamlining the local chapter to grow the organizational revenue from $17M to $30M in just five years.  As part of that successful regional restructuring, she also helped create the now famous brand promise “Doing the Most Good.”
Mary then moved to Habitat for Humanity, where she created a series of volunteer and donor engagement programs that increased both the organization’s annual revenue and its influence in the community.  Out of 1,500 affiliates across the United States, the Dallas Area has now been named the “Affiliate of the Year” for two years in a row.
Continuing her work in low-income communities, Mary joined Reading Partners, a nonprofit that provides reading tutors to schools.  By diversifying financial and volunteer pipelines and expanding both the organization’s program offerings and regional partnerships, Mary was able to increase their reach to serve more than 2,100 struggling readers across North Texas.  Now, working with REAL School Gardens will enable Mary to expand her impact throughout the school day, by providing engaging lessons in Math and Science in addition to Language Arts.
Mary earned her Master of Business Administration in Nonprofit Management from University of Dallas and her Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing as an Armentrout Scholar at Southern Methodist University, both cum laude.  Outside of school and work, Mary is a Certified Fundraising Executive, a member of the Dallas Business Club, President of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Dallas Chapter, and has served as a Planning and Zoning Commissioner for the City of Mesquite.  She is married and the proud mother of two adult children and one grandchild.
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