Nathan Larson wants every Wisconsin child to have access to a garden.
Nathan Larson, director of the Wisconsin School Garden Network, leans forward in his chair, takes a sip of coffee and poses a question: “Could a book at the right time help to influence our educational priorities?”
Larson, whose vision is that every child in Wisconsin should have regular access to a garden and high-quality garden-based education, hopes the answer is yes.
His 2016 book, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom, outlines the core principles of garden-based education. As of mid-March, the book will be available in Spanish.
Research shows spending time learning and playing outdoors is beneficial for children, even as more students are being kept inside. The book includes studies that have found that exposure to soil can reduce anxiety, increase focus and strengthen the immune system.
The book’s influence extends far beyond Wisconsin. Since its release in March 2016, the book has reached over 6,000 educators in all 50 states and over 40 countries. After the Spanish version becomes available, Larson’s colleague Maria Moreno will be taking copies to Guadalajara, Mexico, when she visits the city in March in connection with the Earth Partnership Program. That program works with teachers, students and the community to provide training on the ecological restoration of school grounds.
The Earth Partnership Global Initiative also works with teachers in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador.
Teaching in Nature’s Classroom is available free, either as a print copy or by download, thanks to a $1 million, five-year grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program.
A Madison native and graduate of UW-Madison, Larson became interested in garden-based education when he worked as a naturalist for the San Mateo County Office of Education in California. When public school students visited the 1,000-acre camp, Larson says the group would spend time in the redwood forests and on the coast, but his favorite time was spent in the garden.
When he returned to Madison in 2000, he helped build the farm- and garden-based education program at Troy Gardens. After a decade as the education director for Community Groundworks (the nonprofit that oversees Troy), Larson now has a joint position with Community Groundworks and the UW-Madison Environmental Design Lab.
The Wisconsin Partnership Program grant will also fund technical assistance to 200 educational gardens and teacher training to more than 2,000 schoolteachers, after-school teachers and parents through Larson’s Wisconsin School Garden Network. He hopes it will be a resource hub for those involved in garden-based education everywhere, from community gardens to churches as well as schools.
On Feb. 28, Larson will be presenting at a Department of Public Instruction-sponsored early childhood conference at Olbrich Gardens, where he will hand out copies of his book and discuss some of the main tenets of working with children in garden settings.