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Back to nature in school gardens

Like a true member of Red Sox Nation, Tyron Hill is up when the team triumphs, and gets frustrated when they stumble. So frustrated, in fact, that his aide at Perkins School for the Blind said it is tough to get the 21-year-old with limited sight and cerebral palsy to focus on learning.

But wheel Hill into the school's new $2 million greenhouse and classroom complex in Watertown, with its babbling fountains and aroma of new cedar, and all that stress -- whether Sox-induced or spurred by sudden changes in his schedule -- just seems to fade.

"This place is nice," Hill said recently, as he ran his fingers over the leaves of a peppermint geranium and then sniffed. "Check out the flowers."

Call it New Age, but greenhouses are delightful spaces. Sensory treats like the scent of lemon verbena and thyme, the presence of prickly tropical plants and velvety black dragon coleus offer something students need more of: connection to living things.

With my e-mail box stuffed with come-ons to boost student test scores through online programs, it can be hard to remember learning should not have to be instantaneous. A growing number of schools, however, are recognizing the benefits of getting kids to slow down once in a while and spend some time digging in the dirt.

The National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt., reports rising requests for grants and an eightfold increase in teacher requests for materials in the past decade.

The group now estimates that about one-fourth of public and private schools in the United States have school gardens. They range from wilderness paths, such as one recently constructed at the Floral Street School in Shrewsbury, to more traditional greenhouses like the one at Estabrook School in Lexington.

The fate of school gardens often depends on a single teacher with a passion for plants. Researchers, however, are working to pinpoint the connections between horticulture and school performance -- something that could eventually move school gardening from the periphery to a more central role in classroom learning.

Jayne Zajicek, professor of urban horticulture at Texas A&M University, said research has already linked children's outdoor experiences with more positive attitudes about the environment. She said studies underway aim to show links between working in school gardens and increased academic achievement, as well as positive attitudes toward nutrition and improved social skills.

Richard Mattson, a professor at Kansas State University and director of the Horticultural Therapy Program, said their research shows that exposing people to plants has positive effects. In one study, test subjects who looked at a red flower produced brain waves showing they were more alert, he said. Another study showed increased computer math performance when lavender fragrance was pumped into the test lab.

Mattson, who has seen agitated and hyperactive children in a local community garden program calmed after picking and smelling flowers, believes educators could better use plants to enhance school learning environments.

"Fragrance is very effective in relaxing a child that may be hyperactive," he said. In communities near the university, which is close to a US Army base, he said many children are stressed not because of clinical depression or behavioral disorders, but because their parents are serving in Iraq.

"There should be plants in every classroom, whether they are hanging baskets, classroom windowsill gardens, or under fluorescent plant lights," he said.

When it comes to weaving gardening into school lessons, the challenge is that plants are slow, while today's fast-paced world often demands something quicker.

Will Snyder, an educator at UMass Extension, the agricultural and horticultural arm of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said working with plants requires time and patience, pressing students to observe subtle changes. "The interesting things will not jump out at you like they would on a video screen," he said.

At Perkins, time is less of a problem than at other schools because classes are ungraded and students progress at their own pace. Perkins students, who range from those with vision impairment to those with multiple disabilities, have had access to horticultural therapy programs for more than 20 years and tended gardens on the campus since 1910. The new space triples the size of the current greenhouse and offers better wheelchair accessibility.

Perkins horticultural therapist and teacher Deborah Krause uses the gardens to produce herbs, flowers, and other plants students use in projects. Hill, the Red Sox fan, who is from Fall River, and classmate Brandon MacArthur, 18, of Hubbardston, recently used school-cultivated moss to make dried wreaths, working on fine motor skills as they squeezed glue from a bottle and building sensory experiences as they applied moss and wrinkly dried apples.

"When you work with live materials from the natural world, there is potential for calm, for stress reduction. You get increased focus," said Krause. She said 100 students a week use the garden facilities for science, vocational, and horticultural therapy classes.

For blind students, sensory experiences such as hearing and touching water, smelling plants, or being in a sunny spot are critical to understanding how the world works.

Teacher Margie Carney said students may have smelled a flower, but gardening brings them to a new level. Some students, she said, "had no idea that roots were below the ground."

Children without sight are not alone in misunderstanding how nature works. Horticulturists say teachers report widespread confusion among schoolchildren.

"A lot of educators are telling us kids have become shockingly disconnected from nature, from where their food comes from, from where their clothes come from, from the many ways in which we rely on plants for our existence," said Marcia Eames-Sheavly, senior extension associate at Cornell University, who works with schoolteachers.

Eames-Sheavly cited a young grocery store clerk who didn't recognize a bunch of carrots because they had green tops. "She was used to them all packaged up," she said.

Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said brain science may not yet connect plants to school performance, but working with nature may lead students to profound learning because their experiences spur more questions.

"You learn a great deal about the world by doing that," he said. "We would do much better if we could harness that instead of forcing kids to learn things. If you put them in the right environment, kids love to learn and it provides more flexible, more usable knowledge."

The education world may be in fast-forward, high-stakes-test mode right now, but letting kids muck around in the school garden may offer good, slow, learning that just can't happen at high speed.

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