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Hintgen school garden

UW-La Crosse students, from left, Faith Sersland and Megan Vinson lead Hintgen Elementary School fifth-graders Jailia Yang and Liliana Morales through a lesson in the school's garden Tuesday morning.

Instead of paper and pencils, students at Hintgen Elementary School spent Tuesday morning with cool, black dirt between their fingers.

“Kids are often confined to the classroom, the four walls of the building,” said Heidi Masters, an education professor at UW-La Crosse. The teachers-to-be in Masters’ class were at Hintgen to learn about the benefits of getting students out of the classroom and into the environment, particularly school gardens.

“They’re learning how to be a citizen, learning how to be more mindful of the environment they live in,” she said. Many students “don’t often get these experiences at home.”

The Hintgen fifth-graders and UW-L education students broke into small groups and roamed the school’s little garden, filled with fading sunflowers, orange-yellow tomatoes and leafy zucchini plants. Seniors Jenna Sersch and Katie Turner came up with a math lesson, asking their young counterparts to estimate, for example, how many leaves were on a particular plant.

Sersch, who hopes to teach second grade, said the elementary school she attended only recently added a school garden, much too late for her to benefit from. She wants to give her future students the learning opportunities she missed out on.

“I think students can get antsy, looking out the window at the playground,” Sersch said. “This gives them a hands-on opportunity … rather than sitting at their desks all day, taking notes. I definitely want to take my kiddos outside and let them explore.”

Proponents of outdoor education, including the organizers of Tuesday’s event, GROW La Crosse, say there are applications in a wide range of subjects — not just environmental science.

“We are hoping that these future teachers come away realizing that any subject can be taught in a garden,” said Jamie O’Neill, executive director of GROW. “There are so many benefits to learning in these outdoor garden platforms. If we can get educators comfortable early in their careers teaching in outdoor spaces, we hope that this will continue into their careers.”

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One group compared the size of a plant’s leaf to the size of that plant’s fruit, looking for relationships between the two.

Another group experimented with different measuring techniques. Without a ruler or tape measure handy, the students used their hands to size up the various plants. An eight-hand sunflower, for example, could be said to be about 4 feet tall.

Sersch said outdoor classrooms also give students a better understanding of where their food comes, and Masters said they motivate students to make healthier choices in the lunch line.

Spending a few minutes outside, they add, is also a great way to accommodate students who prefer to learn by doing, by getting their hands dirty.

“It definitely helps,” Masters said. “Students who struggle to pay attention in class are usually a lot more relaxed ... and a lot more engaged outside.”


Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.

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