Kindergarten students crowded around a garden bed at Rattlesnake Elementary School on Monday as they anxiously awaited their turn to grab a pinch of carrot seeds and sprinkle them into the garden.

Then, each student took a chance to sprinkle water on the garden, with the others counting to three to help avoid over-watering.

In another area, students planted pumpkin starts.

“Do we put the leaves down?” Lori Gambardella, an educator with Garden City Harvest, asked the students as she held a plant upside-down.

“No!” the students responded, laughing. Then they planted the starts, working in teams of two to pat down and water the soil.

Kindergarten teacher Lisa Thomas said students often visit the garden over the summer or in the fall and remember with pride which plant they planted.

The kindergarten science curriculum requires students to learn the parts of a plant and what it needs to grow. The garden is a great place for hands-on learning, Thomas said.

Much more than science class happens in the garden. Two years ago, the garden area at Rattlesnake Elementary doubled in size to include a classroom space. Teachers use the space for all types of learning including math, writing and art.

Teachers will often bring their students out to write on a sunny day. “It’s a zen place,” which makes it perfect for thoughtful reflection, said Thomas.

The garden is full of murals and mosaic tiles made by students. The murals, made by fifth-graders, are based on ecosystems and look like human silhouettes, said Pam Wright, principal of Rattlesnake Elementary.

Thomas said using the garden as a classroom benefits learning all around. Traditionally, learning styles were thought of as physical, visual and auditory, but now educators recognize the outdoor learner. A student who may be rambunctious in the classroom can become calm and focused once outdoors.

Working in the garden encourages students to be adventurous and try new things, Thomas said. A small area of the garden is reserved for plants the student can touch and taste. Gambardella showed students a chive plant topped with purple flowers, which she explained brought bees to the garden. Each child then picked a pinky-size piece off the plant.

“If you don’t like it, give it at least five chews,” Gambardella told the students.

Parents have been supportive of the garden, with the Parent Teacher Association ensuring that it’s functional and taken care of over the summer.

“Families like the opportunity for real-world experiences,” said Wright.

The Missoula County Public Schools' Farm to School program focuses on place-based education, which connects classrooms and communities.

Place-based learning emphasizes hands-on, real-world learning experiences that help students foster greater ties to their community and appreciation for the natural world, according to David Sobel’s book “Place-Based Education.”

Thomas showed the book to Wright when seeking to bring a garden to the school. 

“If we care about it, we’ll take better care of it,” Thomas said.

Franklin, Chief Charlo, Hawthorne, Paxson and Lowell Elementary schools have garden spaces, as well as Meadow Hill Middle School and Willard Alternative High School.

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