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Cultivate Health initiative helps the school garden movement grow

April 26, 2016 By Anne Pankratz
Photo: Students in a school garden

“We know that children are much more likely to both try and like fresh fruits or vegetables that they help grow or harvest in the garden,” says Nathan Larson, director of the Cultivate Health Initiative.

Spring is in the air and gardens are on our minds — specifically, school gardens aimed at improving the health and well-being of children.

The Wisconsin School Garden Network is a new program to grow and sustain the garden-based education movement throughout Wisconsin. It will provide technical assistance to 200 educational garden program sites as well as in-person and Web-based training, support and educational resources to more than 2,000 schoolteachers, early care and education providers, after-school teachers, community educators, and parents on best practices in garden-based education. Find educational gardens in your area here.

A growing body of research shows that educational garden programs improve not just the health and well-being of children, but the choices they make regarding fruits and vegetables.

Nathan Larson

Nathan Larson

“We know that children are much more likely to both try and like fresh fruits or vegetables that they help grow or harvest in the garden,” says UW–Madison’s Nathan Larson, director of the Cultivate Health Initiative, which launched the network. “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. 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 network will span 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 promote garden-based education in urban and rural communities around the state.

Photo: Sam Dennis

Sam Dennis

“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,” says Sam Dennis, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at UW–Madison. “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, Larson has authored a new free book, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education. He shares his philosophy of teaching in the garden and presents 15 guiding principles. To download or order a free copy of the book, visit the Wisconsin School Garden Network at

The Cultivate Health initiative is funded by a $1 million, five-year grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. The initiative is run by Community GroundWorks and the UW Environmental Design Lab.

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.

Tips for Starting a School Garden

Beth Hanna, outreach manager of the Cultivate Health initiative, offers these tips for parents, teachers and administrators interested in starting a ­­­school garden:

  • Form a team. Whether through the school wellness committee, green team, or a brand new garden committee, bringing together the many stakeholders of a school garden (teachers, students, administrators, facilities, parents and more) will help mold your school garden program into one that lasts for years to come.
  • Focus on the kids.Involve your students in every aspect of the gardening process — from planning to planting to harvesting. Help them to feel that it is their garden.
  • Enjoy! A garden is a place to explore, learn, munch and play all in one setting. Enjoy the many gifts of the garden, be it a wriggling worm, a juicy tomato or a newly-sprouted plant.