Naturally Teaching

An elementary teacher science blog

Learning Gardens: Creating Dynamic Outdoor Classrooms with Victoria Hackett [ep. 8]

Learning Gardens: Creating Dynamic Outdoor Classrooms with Victoria Hackett [ep. 8]

Learning gardens

I am so excited to be able to offer you a guest interview all about teaching with gardens! My experience is with wild ecosystems, but Victoria Hackett from Outdoor Classrooms has researched teaching gardens across the U.S. Through this research, she developed a framework of 4 different types of gardens that can be used for learning including:

  • Gardens That Feed
  • Gardens That Attract Wildlife
  • Gardens for Art and Beauty
  • Gardens As Outdoor Learning Stations

We discuss these four types of learning gardens including their distinguishing characteristics, how it’s helpful to use bits of each type of garden in your outdoor learning space, and benefits each type of garden provides to your students’ learning and overall development.

Victoria also discusses a fifth type of garden that she uses in her Secret Gardens programming space, the makerspace garden. She encourages anyone interested in the makerspace garden to search for “Adventure Playgrounds”, her unofficial inspiration for the space and materials.

Victoria also gives us great advice with 3 action steps that teachers interested in creating learning gardens could take for getting started; she is very intentional about helping everyone avoid overwhelm. If you’re interested in learning more about her offerings, check out the links below.

BONUS! Victoria’s community is having Angela Hanscom, author of Balanced and Barefoot, on for a FREE live Q&A on July 9th, 2024. Click this link to be taken to the page with all the deets. Is it after July 9th? She recorded it and has made the talk available for all!

Episode Highlights:

  • [2:43] Victoria Hackett’s background
  • [6:32] 4 types of learning gardens
  • [10:10] Benefits to learning in gardens
  • [15:13] Connection to elementary school
  • [19:26] Makerspace garden
  • [23:50] 3 action steps to getting started with learning gardens 
Learning gardens aren't just for early childhood. Elementary aged children, just like the ones pictured, get benefits from learning in gardens as well.
All ages and stages benefit from learning in gardens.

Meet Victoria from Outdoor Classrooms

Victoria Hackett, founder of and host of the Outdoor Classrooms podcast, is dedicated to transforming learning through nature. She leads the international Outdoor Classrooms CIRCLE community and advocates for playful learning with her Four Types of Teaching Gardens Framework.

With over 30 years in education and a Master’s in Education from Cambridge College, Victoria offers seminars, virtual Master Classes, Summits, and e-courses that blend theory with hands-on techniques. Her experience spans from founding the Cove School Children’s Garden in Beverly, MA, creating a demonstration Outdoor Classrooms called the Secret Gardens, to inspiring educators and parents globally to create outdoor classrooms and budget-friendly teaching gardens.

Victoria’s mission is to reconnect children with nature through high-quality teacher training, aiming to ensure every child has access to an Outdoor Classroom or Backyard Teaching Garden.

Connect with Victoria Hackett (Outdoor Classrooms founder and podcast host):

Connect with Victoria Zablocki (Naturally Teaching Elementary Science podcast host):

Victoria Zablocki  0:00

Welcome back to the Naturally Teaching Elementary Science podcast. I'm super excited to bring an interview to you today from someone who shares my name, her name is Victoria Hackett, and she is the founder of and host of the Outdoor Classrooms podcast, which is dedicated to transforming learning through nature. Victoria leads the International Outdoor Classroom Circle Community, and advocates for playful learning with her four types of teaching gardens framework. With over 30 years in education and a master's in education from Cambridge College, Victoria offers seminars, virtual masterclasses summits and E-courses that blend theory with hands on techniques. Her experience spans from founding the Cove School Children's Garden in Beverly, Massachusetts, creating a demonstration outdoor classrooms called the Secret Gardens to inspiring educators and parents globally to create outdoor classrooms and budget friendly teaching gardens. Victoria's mission is to reconnect children with nature through high quality teacher training, aiming to ensure every child has access to an outdoor classroom or a backyard teaching garden. Victoria is super knowledgeable. And I hope that you're inspired through her words and through the benefits that she's seen to be able to take some of this information and move forward with your own learning garden. So let's get growing.


Teaching science in elementary school is crucial for nurturing young minds. But as educators, finding the time and resources to create engaging lessons can be a challenge. That's where this podcast comes in. Welcome to Naturally Teaching Elementary Science, the show dedicated to supporting elementary teachers in their quest to bring authentic and place-based science experiences to their classroom. I'm Victoria Zablocki, a certified elementary teacher turned outdoor educator with over a decade of experience coaching teachers and effective science teaching methods. I'm passionate about making science accessible, understandable and fun for educators and students alike. Join me as we explore strategies for teaching science in elementary school with practical teaching tips, insightful interviews, picture book reviews, and more. Whether you've taught for a long time or just started your teaching journey. This podcast is your trusty resource for enhancing your science curriculum. So let's grow together.


All right, welcome everybody to the Naturally Teaching Elementary Science podcast. I am joined today by Victoria Hackett and I am super excited for you to hear what she has to say. So Victoria, if you could take a moment to introduce yourself with your experience and your journey and how you got to where you are and what you do for outdoor education.


Victoria Hackett  2:43

Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here and to be a guest on your podcast. So yes, my name is Victoria Hackett. I am in Beverly, Massachusetts, which is the North Shore of Boston. And my journey, my outdoor classroom story essentially started, I've always been an educator. And it essentially started when I became a parent. So when my children were in preschool and kindergarten, we would go walk past this really desolate courtyard that was in like, right next to the front door. And it was just awful. I mean, we would sort of go drop off and pick up and all of that, and I had got this idea in my head going, what if what if we made that into an outdoor classroom or space where teachers could take the kids in the classrooms, and it could be this whole thing. And again, I had this education background, but I was more motivated by my children. And fast forward a couple months, and we got our community together, and we created this incredible space. And it was beautiful. We had all sorts of pieces happening, then what struck me is that teachers didn't know what to do with it. So we created this amazing space, but they didn't know how to bring the kids out. They didn't know what to do once they got there. And I was just like, this little parent, you know, and thinking, "Okay, well, I'll help you." So I started volunteering my time and bringing classrooms out and teachers would then look at me and say, "Wow, Joey, you know, never acts that way indoors. He's always bouncing off the walls" and "wow, I never saw..." I'm making up these names, "...I never saw Sally do XY and Z, just the attention span of so much longer" and then it sort of struck me going, I just had this aha moment that was like, "This is it, this is what we need to be doing and we need to be bringing into our schools. And all children should be having these incredible moments where they're just connected." They feel connected in their learning they feel connected within themselves and connected to nature. So, that's essentially where I got sort of the seed of inspiration. And then my kids grew and they graduated from that school. And I started, I was scratching my head, because I couldn't get that those experiences out of my head. And I was teaching at the local community college, and I was doing all my workshops, but it was funny, my workshops, were all based on behavior management. Well, I've gone around town doing all these workshops on behavior management, and I realized, "Oh, well, no, it's actually not behavior management, it's creating these incredible outdoor spaces that can, in turn have this effect on children's behavior." So I then gave birth to my third child, which is the So that's where I really put all my energy into researching and getting as much information as I possibly could. And I was really interested in learning about these four types of gardens. And that's where that led; it led from that experience at my children's elementary school, and then starting to do all this research. And I found that there were four different types of camps of people, which I was, I was sort of, like, "wow, that's interesting." And, I don't know if you want me to go on and just tell you about the four types of gardens and where, where that came from?


Victoria Zablocki  6:20

Yeah, yep. That was actually one of my questions is: I know that you specialize in gardens, something that I don't have much experience with. So I was hoping that you would go on to talk about those four different types of gardens. So if you would, that'd be great.


Victoria Hackett  6:31

So yes, so then what I found was, during this research, I would throw all my kids in the minivan, and I'd be driving around and I was like, looking for children's gardens, I was looking for outdoor classrooms that were in our area that I could see. And in that research, and a lot of stuff was out west, all the edible gardens and gardens that feed. So in that research phase, was coming up with the four types of garden. So it's the gardens that feed, and those are edible gardens. And again, a lot of those are out West because they don't have this New England weather that we have here. But that was the gardens that feed. Then I found there was a whole other group that was the gardens that attract wildlife. And that was like folks that just wanted to study birds, and they just wanted to study caterpillars, or their migration and, and all of that type of thing. And so that was the gardens that attract wildlife. And those were a lot of folks that were in the National Wildlife Federation, there was a whole, a whole other world there. But those two camps of people weren't necessarily talking to each other. And then I found it was another camp of people that just wanted to garden; that just wanted to be outside and make their spaces sort of aesthetically pleasing, and therefore they had flowers. But I also saw these in children's gardens that they were taking, like Miss Rumphius and connecting it to books and, and things like that. I'm like, "Oh, well, that's gardens for art and beauty." So that's the third one. And then I couldn't leave out the fact that I kept seeing mud kitchens and water walls and fishing bridges and all these really very adorable, wonderful spaces that were really beautiful invitations for learning for children. So I thought those are really learning stations, they're outdoor learning stations, so I called them the gardens as outdoor learning stations. So those became the four types of teaching gardens that I like to use when I'm looking at any outdoor classroom because I feel like we can pull from each each of them. And then I like to sort of create this vision of: what if it were an ice cream sundae, and the four types of gardens were the ice cream, we could teach the elements that go into each of these gardens. And because all of our outdoor spaces are so different, I thought, well, if we had a framework to pull from, then each of us could create their own one of a kind outdoor classroom just like their own ice cream sundae. So you get to pick the type of sprinkles, the toppings or that type of thing. So I see outdoor classrooms having all four types of gardens, and all the elements that go with it. And it works, it really works! And some can choose to not grow food, that can be a choice. And some can choose to have more one or the other. But that's the choice of whoever's creating that outdoor space, but it's proven to be such a beneficial way of creating the spaces. And then once you've created it, it's miraculous what you see happening in those types of teaching gardens.


Victoria Zablocki  9:36

That's wonderful. I love the names that you give them. They're kind of whimsical, but at the same time very descriptive. So then it can really give you an idea of what your purpose is behind creating those gardens. I think in education, it is beneficial to be purposeful knowing that you have these goals you want to achieve. And you've kind of laid those out there like you said they can pick which ingredients they want towards whichever purpose they have, which is great. You started talking a little bit about the benefits, could you give us more about what you've seen through your experience as to the benefits of learning through teaching gardens?


Victoria Hackett  10:09

Absolutely. So I'll start with the gardens that feed. And these are edible gardens, kitchen gardens, they all have different names. But I like to streamline into the gardens that feed. I run a nature program, and kids come to my, we call it the Secret Gardens Outdoor Classrooms. And there's nothing better than seeing a child, pick a bean or pick a piece of food from your gardens. And actually, like their face just lights up. There's so much that can go with that there's cooking, there's measuring, there's planting, there's taking care of the plants, which creates empathy, there's all of these things can be hosted in just this one type of garden. And so from math to science to all of the subjects and then connecting that to no matter where you are in ages and stages and what you're learning, there is something to be found in gardens that feed. Even if a plant doesn't make it, what happens is a lot of teachers go into sort of overwhem with it's just too much I have to be a gardener, I have to be this or I have to be that, but you don't have to be it can be just planting a simple bean or a pea or whatever it is, it could just that can flourish. And you don't necessarily have to have a large space, you can do it in a very small space. So another favorite is the gardens as outdoor learning stations. And I bring that one up second, because it's literally the mud kitchen is the favorite. And I think because what happens for children in that space is so sensorial. And that they can, they're getting all this sensory input that they so desperately need. And they are able to go into that space, and just lose themselves. And so they're creating, and again, math, science, all of that they're measuring, so depending on what tools you put in there. So I've got measuring cups, and scales, and water, and mud, so all of that's in there. And so they're playfully learning. So they don't necessarily know that they're learning learning, but they're in that play, there's this enormous amount of learning that's happening. And then depending on the age and the stage of the children, you can shift things around. If you're working with older kids, you can make it into a store, and they can work with money or that type of thing. And again, gardens for art and beauty, I don't just see that as planting flowers, I also see it as creating a performance space. So art and beauty is also performance. I also see it as integrating art shows into your outdoor spaces. I also see it as creating an art garden where kids can create their art, they're being incredibly expressive. So you sort of see that each type of garden pulls something a little bit different and has a little bit more intentionality than the next one. And again, then the final one, which is the gardens that attract wildlife, who doesn't want to have birds and worms, I have one little guy that comes to the Secret Gardens that he just was obsessed with bugs, that's all he wanted to do was search for bugs. So we made sure that we had a log hotel where he can roll over the logs and study. And then it was like from that, I'm getting goosebumps, but from that, I would bring a book out about bugs, and we'd learn about them. So really, again, with all of our work as educators and parents, and anybody that's working with children is following the child, creating those spaces following the child and then bringing in facilitating that learning process so no matter what it is. But these four types of teaching gardens provide that opportunity. Even that the fishing bridge, we have a little fishing bridge, which is basically a little bridge, which is very adorable. And then we have river rocks, and we have these little fishes that we've made. And then on the fishes, we've put alphabet letters and numbers. So they're fishing for letters and numbers and learning their letters and numbers. So all of this is integrating literacy outdoors and math outdoors and so many different possibilities. It's endless. What can be added and what can be deleted and played with.


Victoria Zablocki  14:27

That's wonderful, so many benefits. And that extends from you know, the learning and gardens to learning outside. All of it is that sensory based learning you talked about. The focus is definitely longer outside and you're giving them that fresh air that allows them to calm their body and to really get into what they're learning. I absolutely agree. I could talk to you about that for hours. But, I know that a lot of people think about this as being just for like preschool or for like early childhood. A lot of my audience is elementary teachers, do you feel as though this is something that could extend into that learning as well? You talked about literacy and some other things. I feel as though this is applicable to them. And could you speak on that a little bit?


Victoria Hackett  15:12

Absolutely. It's, it's amazing that the mindset is that this is just for young, preschool aged children. But when they get into that school age bracket, there's so much more you can do with them. So, thinking about the concept of using these four types of gardens with elementary school children is the fact that they're older, brings in more opportunities to do more with them. So again, thinking about what is in your curriculum that you need to teach? And to look at that and to think about how can I teach that or apply that to any of these four different types of gardens, whatever it is, it can be applied. And so those are the pieces that are so exciting. And I think the key is to not go into overwhelm, is to really look at these gardens as opportunities. And again, going back to all the math that can happen. And taking that and even if you are inviting kids to pick the beans, or the peas, or pull the carrots, or all of that can be put into a salad, I've seen that simple. It's or making a salad and putting that all together. But that that process is so important. And then the counting, we have a beautiful story walk, where you can take a book and actually dissect the book and put it into your garden. So creating, I like to think of it as when you go into an outdoor space, how can you infuse as much literacy as possible. And to not only as the educator, the parent or the adult to creating that single handedly on their own. That's the beauty of elementary school kids is that you can, even older kids, is that you can bring the kids into that process with you. So just this take literacy, for example. So literacy, if I walk into a space, how can I make that space as literacy inviting as possible so that you're going to want to have signs. And so why not add signs to all of the different four types of gardens and everything within the four types of gardens. And why not, instead of you making the signs, have the kids make the signs, because it's their space. So they're practicing their "A". And then maybe, oh, maybe we can add letters next to some of the plants that are growing in our gardens that attract wildlife. So maybe it's an Aster, we put an "A" next to it. So depending on what the plants are, maybe what I love to do is if it's the child's birthday, I love to, I have letters on rods, and I put that child's name in the garden. So it's just thinking about, maybe just think about literacy and think about what are all the different ways we can add literacy to our outdoor space. Can we even use loose parts and take sticks and create "A" letters with sticks? Just providing these invitations allows children to take it to the next could do the same thing for math. So really thinking about what is it in your outdoor space that's going to enhance the math and no matter where you are, what lessons you're speaking to, and in math, how can that be established in terms of invitations in these four types of learning gardens. So we have a makerspace garden. And in that makerspace older kids can change. They're not natural, loose parts. They're manufactured like tires, and they can make obstacle courses, there's pulleys, all of that is math. So then using the vocabulary to identify it to whatever math that is required at the time, you can make that connection.


Victoria Zablocki  19:09

That's awesome. I was actually going to ask you about your makerspace garden because I heard about it, I think in episode two of your podcast. And so if you could share with us a little bit I know that STEM and STEAM is still a big thing, but they aren't going outside yet. And so if we can talk about your makerspace garden, that would be wonderful.


Victoria Hackett  19:26

Absolutely. I don't know where the inspiration of this garden came from. It just started evolving very slowly. There's a lot of work and study on Adventure Playgrounds where kids can just there's just a lot of like loose parts that are makerspace so there are a lot of, if any of your listeners are listening, just research an adventure playground and you will see just how like the extreme. So my makerspace garden is we've just brought over a lot of old ladders and tires and old slide and we kind of the kids, all the older kids actually started making this into an obstacle course and we have PVC pipes. And the little ones love putting the balls through the PVC pipes because it's a little bit like peekaboo. It's like cause and effect. We just started slowly. And this is kind of the big message that I want to have your listeners hear is that, you don't have to do it all at once. Just choose one area that you're kind of really excited about, and maybe one type of garden. And it may be the makerspace. But my makerspace, again, has evolved over time. And that makes it new. I mean, one of my goals is, "oh, what can we add today that's a little bit different from the last time they were here." So we added a pulley system. And then they put things in the pulley system, we added even in that makerspace because it we're in summer, now I've added a whole water wall. So that's in the makerSpace. But the water wall is a little bit engineering. And it's so funny with the little ones transporting the water to the water wall and putting it in and to all of that is elements of engineering, which is really, really fun. But the idea in the makerspace garden is that everything in an outdoor classroom doesn't have to be organically growing from the ground. And that there can be spaces in your outdoor space, that allow children to manipulate tires and heavy things and, and to really construct on a much larger scale. And these larger scale things they can't do inside. So they're outside and they're moving things and giving them permission to do that. What goes with that is they are working together with their friends. And they are creating something together. So no matter what it is, it's fun. It's creative. And I had a one little guy that made a bridge. And we called it Benny's Bridge, you know, so it was Benny's Bridge for forever. And then I had to use those planks for something else. But to then identify, give something a name, even give it a sign. But then we added a boat to that space. Facebook Marketplace is a great place to find old boats, small boats. And that doesn't necessarily have to be in the makerspace garden, it can be in any part, it can be in the literacy garden, because you can throw a basket of books in there. But what I love even about the boat is it allows children to just go off in their imagination, which you don't see a lot when they're in front of their screen. Even with one group, the older kids that I had elementary school, I'd love to incorporate journals. So they're nature journals. So we always would end our sessions with a journaling exercise. And so we would go to a part of our secret gardens that was felt like more like a woods or they will always open the the journals were always there. But then sometimes we would actually do the journals in the boat. So it's just the options are endless, endless, endless.


Victoria Zablocki  23:14

That's wonderful. I do appreciate, though, that you brought up the fear of overwhelm from teachers. And so with your experience, I know you've worked a lot with teachers to help teachers avoid that overwhelm. Are you able to break things down to about three action steps that someone who's kind of interested in this could take towards moving into that space? Because we know, as outdoor educators, we don't have to do it all right now, as you said, it's always evolving, always changing. But what are three action steps that an elementary teacher could take towards putting in a garden for learning?


Victoria Hackett  23:51

Absolutely. The first one is to go out into your space, and just walk around. And notice how you feel in that space and walk all the way around and notice how you're feeling in that space. And just do you feel stressed? Do you feel like overwhelmed? Are you inspired by anything in that space? Is there something in that space that gets you excited? Then the next one is to observe your kids in that space. Are they drawn to any particular spot? Do they love... so I did a backyard consult the other day and that's exactly we walked around the space and looked around the space. And then their daughter showed me that her favorite spots so you kind of see how children are already using the spaces. And then you look at the four types of gardens that we just talked about. And you say, "okay, what are you getting most excited about? What are your kids most excited..." You can even showcase them. What are you most excited about? Because elementary school kids are older, you can actually have this back and forth conversation with them. And then I would choose one thing, just one, whether it be a mud kitchen, or music wall or an art garden. And again, our art garden is so simple. It's a, it's some picnic tables, and we have a shower curtain, and that's our easel. And we have a storage container that has all the art supplies in it. So it can be so simple. And it does not have to be this huge thing that you're spending all this money, you can do it so organically, because kids, they prefer the box rather than what's in the box in terms of their play. So that's, that's what I would do, I would keep it super simple, then if you get really into it, I would surround yourself with people, like-minded people that are doing this type of work, listening to your podcast, finding a community, whether it be at Outdoor Classrooms, we have a community or a community within your school, but surround yourself because you become one of the five people that you are around. So if you're around people that are saying, "Oh, that'll never work, that'll never work. It's, forget it." If you are around that energy, then yeah, it's not going to work. But if you see the challenges as opportunities, it will work. I promise you, it will work. So it's you want to surround yourself with these like-minded and listen to how other people are doing it. Because then what happens is the magic, then the domino starts happening. Because once you do one thing, you're like, "Oh, that wasn't so hard. Let's do the next thing. And then oh, look..." and then you'll see the response from the kids. And you're like, "Oh, my goodness, why didn't I do this earlier?" And then you can can, then there'll be challenges along the way. And then that's when you have your community that will lift you up. And that's why we have our podcast, right? That's, that's why we want to keep this dialogue going on and get more and more people doing this. Because the fact is, is twofold. It's all the research, it's all there.


Victoria Zablocki  27:16

That's awesome. I actually think that's a great place for you to tell us about what you have to offer because they may be listening to this podcast, but you also have things that you can offer. So if you want to tell us Victoria about some of the things that you provide through your community, through your podcast, that'd be great.


Victoria Hackett  27:32

Oh, thank you so much. Thank you, we have an incredible, we have our outdoor, you can go there and find whoodles noodles, it's And you can find lots of workshops and master classes and all sorts of classes that are online, you can do that on your own. Or if you are actually looking for a community of educators from all over the world, we have a circle community and it's more like a family at this point. It's awesome. We have folks from all different levels that have been doing this for years. For years and years years, we have one, one of our members is getting her Ph.D. to folks that are just starting out and folks that are working at home and with their families and not so those folks get access to our four seasonal masterclasses, they get access to pretty much everything on the site. And it's just a wonderful place. So we meet live each month. So we can tap in and meet folks. I also have my podcast, which is totally free. And there's usually two episodes that go out a week, one that's an interview, and another one that's just me doing a follow up that might pull from those interviews. And yeah, and if you are in the Beverly area we have on site programs and all sorts of fun stuff. So, thank you.


Victoria Zablocki  28:53

Yeah, that's awesome. Well, is there anything else that we didn't talk about? I know we, we hit on a lot of things, but if there's anything else that you want to add, we have a second for that.


Victoria Hackett  29:03

I think if you could just, yeah, I think just open the door and spend more time outdoors and once you do that, you will start seeing the magic that we're all talking about. And that I hope you can come join us in our community. It's such a wonderful, wonderful group of people that we're all having this dialogue. On July 9th, we have Angela Hanscom coming to speak with us and she's the author of Balanced and Barefoot and she truly truly speaks about the essence and why why this is so important because she comes from a space of being an occupational therapist, and her book is fantastic balance of barefoot so I'm promoting her and her book. I'm not getting any anything for it, but I that's an open invitation to everybody and that's a free that's a freebie that I just think she's just it's so important to really understand why we are having this conversation, and she speaks to that.


Victoria Zablocki 30:06


Well that’s wonderful. Well thank you for your time today. I enjoyed our conversation and I know that we’ve said it before but the two of us could talk for hours. So I appreciate you taking a little time to talk to my audience today.


Victoria Hackett 30:20


Great. Thanks so much. Thanks for having me today.


Victoria Zablocki 30:23


Thank you so much for tuning into today's episode of the Naturally Teaching Elementary Science podcast. I hope you found it informative, inspiring and full of actionable insights to enhance your science teaching journey. Connect with me on social media for more updates, science, tidbits, and additional resources. You can find me on Instagram and Facebook at naturally.teaching. Let's continue the conversation and share our passion for elementary science education together. Don't forget to visit my website at for all the show notes from today's episode. If you enjoyed today's episode, please consider leaving a review on your favorite podcast platform. Your feedback helps me improve and reach more educators just like you. Thank you again for listening and until next time, keep exploring, keep learning, and keep naturally teaching.

Ep. 8: Learning Gardens: Creating Dynamic Outdoor Classrooms with Victoria Hackett
Learning Gardens: Creating Dynamic Outdoor Classrooms with Victoria Hackett [ep. 8]
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