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.

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