Tempe school gardening program improves students' behavior.
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Tempe school gardening program improves students’ behavior.

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  • Gabrielle Olson/Tempe Elementary School District

Gardening Helps Students With Behavior
Can gardening help to heal minds?

This question has been pursued by doctors, psychologists, and occupational therapists interested in a practice called horticultural therapy – the idea that planting and maintaining a garden can be a therapeutic process.

Many schools and rehabilitation clinics across the nation are offering youth programs which have implemented garden programs to promote horticultural therapy.

In 2011, a center in Ohio showed horticultural therapy within their gardening program helped their kids better manage emotional and behavioral issues.

According to findings in the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, most of the kids in the program also said they would continue gardening after the program.

In 2015, Evans Elementary, of the Tempe Elementary School District, re-opened as Evans Learning Center.  

Desert Choice Schools and Autism Spectrum Therapies, a Tempe-based clinic, share the space at Evans Learning Center and provide educational, behavioral and emotional support to Tempe Elementary students.

Tempe Elementary instructional assistant Ruth Pulaski believes in the positive behavior that can be harvested from horticultural therapy.

This past summer, Pulaski joined together with Mary Bosen, City of Tempe Kid Zone employee and retired Tempe Elementary teacher, to kickoff Evans Learning Center’s school garden program.

“I’ve always loved gardening and have seen the positive benefits of growing one,” Pulaski said. “The best thing I ever did was contact Mary to help me get one started here at Evans.”

To get the school garden off on the right foot, Bosen and Pulaski sought out help from the City of Tempe as well as surrounding businesses.

Walmart and the Home Depot donated store credit for Bosen and Pulaski to buy supplies for building garden beds and irrigation.

Local A & P Nursery in Mesa donated plants to the garden, and the City of Tempe donated seeds as well as a significant supply of compost.

“I so admire the City of Tempe’s composting program,” Pulaski said. “The city truly believes in and provides support to school gardens.”

After tilling the soil and setting up the garden beds, Pulaski and Bosen introduced the garden to Evans Learning Center’s students.

The garden does not use any harsh insecticides or chemicals ensuring an organic environment for students and staff to work in.

“The only thing these plants have had on them is water and compost,” Bosen said.

Students earn the opportunity to work in the garden by working on their behavior. Student Support Director Tracy Harvester explained that the Evans Learning Center school garden has been a great motivator for positive behavior with this group of students.

“Out of all the preferred activities that the students work toward, the school garden is the most popular choice,” Harvester said. “They’re learning life skills that they can take with them in the future along with enjoying working with nature.”

“I love the garden because it’s a relaxing space,” said sixth-grader Serenity Grey. “I love to see the beautiful plants and eat yummy salads.”

“The radishes are my favorite,” said seventh-grader Joel Chavez. “I really like how I saw them as seeds two months ago, and now they are fully grown.”

Sara Mauricio, a teacher to Grey and Chavez, has seen a huge difference in her students’ behavior thanks to the Evans Learning Center school garden.

“The impact on motivation within the classroom has been outstanding,” Mauricio said. “They behave well so they can go out to the garden and they come back feeling great. They also love eating their vegetables now!”

Chavez explained that his time at Evans has been beneficial and he hopes that he will be able to go back to his home-school, Gililland Middle School, from the behavioral progress he has made.

“My goal is to attend Gililland Middle School once again,” Chavez said. “I will be writing a letter and hopefully get an opportunity to go back to my school.”

To celebrate a successful first semester of gardening, Pulaski and Bosen organized an afternoon salad party to enjoy the fruits (or shall we say vegetables) of the school’s labor.

All students and staff were invited to eat a garden-fresh salad of beet greens, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and baby carrots along with a variety of additional salad fixings.

One by one students lined up and exclaimed with joy how wonderful it was that they were eating vegetables straight from their garden.

Desert Choice employee Ryan Alexander, who is a behavior teacher and PE coach at Evans, has seen the value of responsibility grow with his students in regards to the garden.

“The school garden is a great way to teach responsibility to our students,” Alexander said. “They love to watch their plants grow and learn that hard work pays off.”