Growing Careers: Using School Gardens to Help Promote Career Development

By Josh Mangin

Over the last few years, the creation and use of gardens within K-12 educational settings has proliferated (Dring et al., 2020). A growing body of research is developing which shows school gardens can be used to improve a variety of psycho-social learning goals.  Examples include promoting community development, increasing pro-environmental behaviors, and improving health, well-being, and personal enrichment (Austin, 2022; Parks et al., 2022; Williams & Brown, 2012). Within the school setting, learning gardens are frequently used to integrate classroom topics, such as social studies and biology, with hands-on experiential learning (Diaz et al., 2018). With the increased popularity and scientific support, it seems this could be an opportunity for school-based career professionals to incorporate the various benefits of school gardens into career development programs, interventions, and curriculum.

Istock 1396806922 Credit Jirachaya Pleethong

Career Development and Gardening

In his classic theory, Super describes how a key developmental milestone for K-12 students is to grow a self-concept and develop attitudes and knowledge related to career and work (Super, 1992). One way career professionals can possibly facilitate students’ growth stage is through growing a garden. The nature of gardening provides students the opportunity to practice important transferable career skills. Gardens take much planning, work, and effort, and more importantly students will learn that teamwork is required to help keep the garden going. In addition, working a garden provides opportunities for learning that most likely would not occur in a classroom. When using nature as a learning tool, it seems that nature takes the role as a co-teacher, for students can learn so much about the world around them and even themselves. Essentially, gardening provides the opportunity to practice a variety of transferable skills and further develop a student's self-knowledge.

Planning, Vision, and Goal Setting

Many students can grasp the connection between a successful and productive garden and the need for a clear vision, plan, and goals. This provides an opportunity for students to participate in the planning process as well as develop important organizational skills that can be used in other aspects of their lives. A framework for the development of a plan for the garden is to have students assess the current garden situation, what they would like the garden to become, and what resources and activities are needed to make their vision a reality. Career professionals can provide support and guidance to students throughout the planning, vision, and goal setting process.

Sensory Learning

Gardening allows a unique sensory experience. Students can smell the blooming flowers, feel the various textures of leaves, stems, and fruits, see the dynamic movement of pollinators buzz around the garden, hear the various songbirds, and taste the sweet and intense flavors of a freshly picked tomato. Incorporating a variety of sensory experiences while learning seems to intensify the learning experience as well as increase students' sense of motivation, self-efficacy, and a feeling of accomplishment (Cree & Robb, 2021). Gardening provides a unique opportunity for career professionals to utilize sensory learning.

Systems Thinking

Over the last few years, it has become clear to many students that they live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA; Bennett & Lemoine, 2014). It is believed that to help navigate a VUCA world, developing an understanding of the interconnectedness of various systems is important. A productive garden is the direct result of multiple systems interacting with each other. Therefore, gardening gives students the real-world experience of learning and analyzing the mechanism of complex systems and developing interventions to help influence these systems. When gardening, students may learn an important part of systems thinking - no matter how much they think they understand the system and try to control the system, something new will emerge (Demssie et al., 2023). For example, students may be very surprised when a new variety of plants start growing in the garden, even though no one planted it. Reflecting on this unexpected development, students may consider the possibilities of how the plant got here, such as the seed being dormant in the soil, blown in from the wind, or brought into the garden on the sole of someone’s shoe. Exploring these possibilities with a career professional provides students the opportunity to practice a variety of thinking such as linear, critical, and systems, which the career professional can then show the connection to navigating the world students live in.

Teamwork and Community Building

Maintaining a garden can be a yearlong process and requires work. In addition to the physical work that is required, a variety of resources are needed, such as compost, seeds, tools, and people to cook and eat the produced food. Therefore, students will quickly learn that to accomplish their gardening goals, teamwork is needed. In addition, students will learn that through the process of working together as a team, a sense of community will be built. To help foster team and community building, the career professional can encourage students to explore resources (e.g., school, local, and state) and create action steps to build and maintain those relationships. This will also expose students to a variety of career pathways, such as food and environmental policy, agriculture, culinary, design, and management professions.

Putting All of the Pieces Together

The nature of gardening provides students the opportunity to see the direct outcomes as the result of their efforts when designing, maintaining, and cultivating the garden. This can be helpful for K-12 students, for many times, the topic of career creates a mindset of something that is far in the future. Therefore, gardening can be used as an experiential career intervention to help facilitate growth in self-concept and provide students exposure to a variety of career professions. In addition, gardening can be a unique way to instill important career development components, such as transferable skill building, increasing self-knowledge, improving networking and relationship building, and promoting students' holistic sense of well-being. The career professional who applies Super’s theory in this hands-on way increases the students’ understanding of lifelong processes.




Austin, S. (2022). The school garden in the primary school: meeting the challenges and reaping the benefits. Education 3-13, 50(6), 707–721.

Bennett, N., & Lemoine, J. (2014). What VUCA really means for you. Harvard Business Review, 92(1/2).

Cree, J., & Robb, M. (2021). The essential guide to forest school and nature pedagogy. Routledge.

Demssie, Y. N., Biemans, H. J. A., Wesselink, R., & Mulder, M. (2023). Fostering students’ systems thinking competence for sustainability by using multiple real-world learning approaches. Environmental Education Research, 29(2), 261–286.

Diaz, J. M., Warner, L. A., & Webb, S. T. (2018). Outcome framework for school garden program development and evaluation: A delphi approach. Journal of Agricultural Education, 59(2), 143–165.

Dring, C. C., Lee, S. Y. H., & Rideout, C. A. (2020). Public school teachers’ perceptions of what promotes or hinders their use of outdoor learning spaces. Learning Environments Research, 23(3), 369–378.

Parks, M., Hershey, H. P., Sobzack, S., & Tichenor, M. S. (2022). Dirty hands: Exploring elementary school gardens to develop pro-environmental attitudes. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 58, 87–91.

Super, D. E. (1992). Toward a comprehensive theory of career development. In D. H. Montross & C. J. Shinkman (Eds.), Career development: Theory and practice (pp. 35–64). Charles C. Thomas, Publisher.

Williams, D. R., & Brown, J. D. (2012). Learning gardens and sustainability education: Bringing life to schools and schools to life. Routledge.



Josh ManginJosh Mangin is a doctoral student in the leadership program at the University of Southern Maine. Josh’s scholarly interests focus on how nature can promote leadership and career development.  joshua.mangin@maine.edu

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Tanya Guinn   on Thursday 02/01/2024 at 11:35 PM

Love this article , I used to get gardens started at elementary schools where I served as Counselor & loved helping at risk students get involved and engaged in gardening. They took flowers home to their mom’s for Mother’s Day. Now I work at a high school and working on getting one of my clubs to make garden benches near our garden boxes for teachers to get outside for lunch & sunshine. Our daughter & family live in Scarborough so we have been traveling to your area for 10 years. We live in NC. Thanks for your article!

Jim Peacock   on Tuesday 02/13/2024 at 04:44 PM

This is great Josh. I remember attending your session on this topic at the Maine Career Development Association and I loved it then. Analogies work and this one works well.

China Yang   on Thursday 05/30/2024 at 10:48 AM

This is a great article! This article demonstrates the importance of experiential and hands-on learning. Giving students opportunities to learn in different ways can not only help them grow as students and help them succeed but also develop many more skills that come with the territory. In this case, gardening. Gardening is a life skill and is often easily overlooked because of how challenging it may be, however, if we can teach students at a young age where our food comes from and how it is grown, we can change the stigma behind gardening.

Grace Cormier   on Friday 05/31/2024 at 12:58 PM

Having schools implement gardening allows for further development in numerous areas, along with understanding complex systems. I believe that the integration of a deeper knowledge of the mechanism of systems and an understanding how they may interact and connect will lead to a foundation of empathy within students. If students can recognize the interconnectedness of the garden, they may begin to recognize the interconnectedness of themselves and their peers- leading to more empathic traits.

Justine C.    on Saturday 06/01/2024 at 07:18 AM

Dear Josh, Thank you for this wonderful article detailing the list of benefits that students may experience when working in nature, growing a garden. For the at-risk student, the benefits are endless especially when the student has experienced trauma and a difficult homelife. Being in greenspace is where we oftentime find peace and solitude in order to reduce our stress and anxiety. In reading your article I discovered that the at-risk student will have an outlet for redirection in their thought process as well as a growing self-worth when caring for living things as the child will experience a profound sense of self-worth and pride in accomplishment. I see the school garden as a place where all students can come together; from varying backgrounds and academic success levels in order to join their efforts and talents to create an environment, realizing a successful outcome. Thank you for this article as I have a few students in mind that would benefit from our school garden.

Micol Striuli   on Sunday 06/02/2024 at 12:20 PM

I think this is a wonderful idea. My local state university has a partnership with the elementary school across the street and they have a community garden. This is a really rewarding practice for the college students and elementary students alike. The act of gardening combines so many other social aspects. I still remember my school garden in elementary school -- glad to see that many more students will continue to enjoy flowers, vegetables, and community!

Korrie L.   on Sunday 06/02/2024 at 06:50 PM

This is something that I find to be very important. I am currently working at the elementary school in my district to provide more opportunities for outdoor classroom time. Many of the teachers in this school have pushed this initiative for all the reasons that you wrote about in your article. As a society that strives for the best technological advances, we often forget that nature in itself can provide all the stimulation, relaxation, and therapy that one may need!

Leah Abbate   on Monday 06/03/2024 at 10:05 AM

I love this idea of incorporating gardens into school settings! Providing students with non-traditional ways to develop academic, social, and career skills can be a positive experience for all students, especially ones who struggle in a traditional setting. Students will benefit not only academically, but also from learning skills in responsibility, organization, and teamwork. I also imagine this would provide a therapeutic environment for many students – a way to disconnect with the fast-paced world and connect with the peacefulness of nature. Working with their hands, working with others, and attaining a sense of accomplishment as they see the fruits of their labor are all benefits that will support them throughout their lives and professional careers.

Marcela Garces   on Monday 06/03/2024 at 11:43 AM

Hi Josh, my high school has had a community garden for years. It is a beautiful space. In a city with lots of movement, the garden is the one space that provides the community with a quiet and natural space. I love reading this article and live in a district that supports your writing.
Thank you!- Marcela

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