Teach kids how to grow a green vocabulary and mind-set, whether it’s at home, at school, or in a community garden.

School gardens and green classrooms are ideal ecosystems for growing your students’ academic vocabulary and thinking skills.

Here are some key terms, concepts, big ideas, and little nuggets to introduce and build on across grade levels. They’re equally applicable in classrooms, in community gardening programs, or at home.

Dirt versus soil

“What’s the difference between dirt and soil?” That question stumps many children at first, but my veteran gardeners know the difference: “Dirt is what’s behind your ears. Soil is what we plant in.” Soil is a living thing. It’s a community. Dirt is a liability. Soil is the greatest asset in the world; it provides a medium to grow.

Expect your new gardeners to be surprised to learn that soil is a living, breathing material. Challenge their assumption that it’s “just dirt” by having them investigate healthy soil using all their senses. Using an inexpensive handheld magnifying glass, they can get a close-up look at soil samples. Teach them to roll a pinch of soil between thumb and fingers to see if it forms a ball—a way to check for clay content. What do they notice when they close their eyes and smell a handful of soil? Their observations lead naturally to descriptive writing activities.

In outdoor gardens and container gardens, soil is what holds plant roots in place and delivers nutrients and water essential for healthy plant growth. Soil contains millions of living microorganisms; it is an ecosystem unto itself.

Academic language will blossom along with scientific understanding as students learn to identify organic and inorganic materials. Encourage questions about what they can do to improve soil quality. Earthworms, anyone? Good questions open the door to scientific investigations along with profound conversations about how we can improve our own environment.

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Think (and fail) like a scientist

A green classroom invites students to think like scientists every day. I keep a visual reminder of the scientific method posted on the wall of our National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center and refer students to it regularly. I want to power up their thinking by using the active verbs that scientists use: ask, wonder, inquire, question, test, measure, observe, evaluate, analyze. And fail. Fail often. All scientists need to know that failure is part of the scientific method. Failure is data. It tells us when we’re wrong and need to try a different approach. Understanding what doesn’t work is a step toward success. In a classroom filled with growing things, you have the perfect opportunity to remind students that nature succeeds by adapting to failure. The strong survive. Students will thrive when they understand that failure gives us all the opportunity to learn and grow.



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