Reconnecting Kids to Nature: The Benefits of School Gardens

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"How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers" offers everything you need to know to build school gardens and to develop the programs that support them, from planning and fundraising to preparing the site and teaching in the garden.
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School gardens inspire cooperation.
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School gardens are often whimsical.
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Students inspect the calendulas.
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A harvest party.
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Students eating freshly harvested carrots.

The following is an excerpt from “How to Grow a School: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers” by Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle (Timber Press, 2010). The excerpt is from Chapter 1: Why School Gardens?

There is rising concern over a growing divide between children and the ecology that surrounds them. More and more commonly children stay inside sitting in front of computers or video games, exploring virtual reality instead of playing and exploring out of doors. The reasons for this are well documented and widely discussed. Parents have become more protective due to a perceived fear of danger in the outdoors; the introduction of the automobile and a dramatic increase in its usage over the last century has resulted in a lack of play spaces in the streets; major demographic shifts have occurred in the last century resulting in a dramatic reduction of the number of families who live on farms; and kids are now bombarded with irresistible forms of media and electronic entertainment resulting in more time spent indoors. In urban areas, the relative scarcity of empty lots, parks, and natural open space makes connection with the natural world even more tenuous for many kids. The consequences of this disconnect have been considered by academics, journalists, educational professionals, politicians, and environmentalists. Are children gaining a sense of the systems at large if they aren’t outside exploring them? Are children learning to be independent problem solvers if they aren’t afforded the opportunity to engage their hearts, minds, and hands by building a fort somewhere outside using raw materials and their own creativity? Are they suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder and increased incidence of obesity due to a lack of unstructured play and activity outside? In response, education professors have written on the positive, lifelong effects of nature play; journalist Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and cofounded the Children and Nature Network; “No Child Left Inside” legislation is being brought before Congress; and a tapestry of environmental organizations strive to draw children and families away from the TV and into the outdoors. And what about our schools? Are we able to move beyond the plastic play structure and re-imagine the schoolyard to incorporate nature play and a small slice of the natural world? Can we build a hands-on outdoor classroom that amplifies the math, science, and language arts that are taught inside? 

School gardens provide a space for students to reconnect to the ecology around them. Gardens teach students about agriculture, how we nourish ourselves, the importance of stewardship, and an appreciation for the natural systems that support life on our planet. In this chapter we will discuss the importance of school gardens as an experiential, hands-on educational tool where core curriculum comes alive. We will explore the accepted research about the benefits of school garden programs, which extol the virtues of experimental, kid-centered, not-so-orderly gardening that fosters keen observation, critical and independent thought, and the achievement of life skills. We will also share a few thoughts on the value of unstructured and imaginative nature play in the schoolyard.

Each spring my fourth and fifth grade classes would come to the garden and inevitably beg to do “The Mississippi River,” an activity that had become a tradition in the garden. Over time I persuaded them to call it “The Colorado River” as what was formed by our experiment was much more erosive, canyonlike, and definitively western than its midwestern counterpart. At the top of the hill I would turn on the water letting it course down the sandy slope, along the beds and into the digging area. A riverbed was rudimentarily formed with a little help from the students, trowels in hand. Some of the students built towns and cities along the banks with stones and sticks, some created a large reservoir at the end, and others diverted some of the river farther away to water crops (represented by pine needles and leaves) or nurture growing towns. And the river kept running. At some point during the activity, however, the water would slow to a trickle and the students would eventually stop their bustling. Hey! What happened to the water?! We would investigate; sometimes the culprits were the increasing number of diversions to the new settlements that were happening upstream, sometimes the “snow pack” up at the top of the hill was too low to create a strong enough river to supply all those downstream. The water would occasionally get very strong, too, wiping out towns in the “flood zone” and creating braids in the river and deep canyons.

Eventually I would turn off the water and our discussion would ensue: water is a creator of landforms, water is a resource, water is finite, and water can be a destroyer of property. What are the problems in this tiny world we’ve created? What are the solutions? How are landforms created? What is beautiful about them? This simple activity that was the epitome of fun for the students also came embedded with countless lessons that chipped away at academic requirements. And the garden was the ideal place for such a messy endeavor. Finally, the reservoir was emptied and the water brought to our native garden. We carried small buckets of sand from downhill to fill in the river bed and canyons, repairing the fissured ground.–RKP

Garden-Based Learning and Experiential Education

Learning in the garden happens through direct experience and experimentation. Crops are allowed to reseed themselves; pumpkins left to the elements provide an opportunity for students to observe rot, decay, and eventual redemption as the next generation of seed germinates. Children investigate the creation of landforms by allowing water to run down a sandy slope. School gardens are outdoor classrooms that introduce a trial-and-error approach to learning; hands engage the mind to problem solve with tangible results. Garden-based learning can be minimally defined as “an instructional strategy that utilizes a garden as a teaching tool.” This definition doesn’t fully illustrate an outdoor classroom’s multiple approaches to achieving student comprehension, however. Traditional classrooms are often tightly structured and regulated by a school’s mandate to teach to the education standards. School gardens as outdoor classrooms also teach to the curriculum, but, by nature, are dynamic educational settings that provide numerous opportunities to expand upon the standards. Caring for a seedling from germination to maturity, observing hummingbirds pollinate salvia, smelling a sprig of thyme, weeding, and many other direct experiences are integral to a young child’s developing sense of the world around him. By learning through action and through stimulation of all the senses, the school garden amplifies and enhances subjects covered in the traditional classroom. Gardens also teach students that learning may take place everywhere, and especially so out of the classroom.

The Benefits of School Gardens–Making the Case

Benefits of school gardens:

• They enhance academic achievement.
• They promote healthy lifestyles.
• They instill an environmental stewardship ethic.
• They encourage community and social development.
• They instill a sense of place.

The benefits of school gardens are many and the evidence has been corroborated by a diverse group of practitioners and researchers. Numerous studies point to school gardens as a means of improving academic achievement, promoting healthy lifestyles, demonstrating the principles of stewardship, encouraging community and social development, and instilling a sense of place. In this section we will mention some of the studies that have substantiated these benefits on the academic, nutritional, environmental, community and individual levels. Evidence such as this will help you make the case for your school garden project and is useful when confronted by a reluctant principal or school district. A review of the current relevant research will help you build the foundation of your project.

The first kindergarten class that came to the garden in the fall after I began teaching was a quick and dirty introduction to working with five year olds in the outdoors. I remember hearing their chatter as they ascended through the campus to where I was waiting in the garden. Once inside the gate their somewhat orderly line disintegrated into a loose train of bouncing bodies and pointing hands. They batted the apples on the branches and shrieked as they quickly drew their hands back from the buzzing bees on the ceanothus; one little girl ran directly to a tall bunch of cosmos waving in the sun and plucked two flower tops off with each hand, turned around and beamed at me as she sat down with her classmates on the straw bales. I stood a bit bewildered; thank goodness kindergarten class only lasted thirty minutes instead of the usual forty-five.

In time I learned the art of kindergarten instruction by observing veteran teachers calmly focus their erratic masses. I discovered the pure joy of seeing these first-time gardeners completely rapt by the simplest of natural wonders; pulling a carrot out of the ground for the very first time produced eyes so big and a look so astonished I couldn’t help but be swept up in the miracle myself. In these moments with the youngest of our students I developed my belief in the power of the garden as an outdoor classroom; they absorbed everything they experienced. In the next garden class the students calmly watched the bees, they called the ceanothus by name, and after exploring the parts of plants that we eat, carrots became known as those “yummy orange roots.”–RKP

School gardens enhance academic achievement

Several studies suggest that school gardens and outdoor classrooms enhance student achievement, especially in elementary education. As a form of environmental education, gardening has been shown to improve performance in math, science, writing, social studies, and overall attitudes toward learning. School gardens are living laboratories, libraries, problem sets and equations. They provide the muse for writing a poem. They supply the data for the graph that creates the equation on how fast the plants are growing. Through their dynamic nature, gardens embody a genuine and direct experimental, inquiry-based approach to learning. Compelling results have emerged from the research.

Texas A&M University conducted several studies on science achievement in relation to garden-based learning. As noted in the abstract of Growing Minds, science achievement of third, fourth, and fifth grade elementary students (ages seven to eleven) was studied using a sample of 647 students from seven elementary schools in Temple, Texas. As part of their science curriculum, students in the experimental group participated in school gardening activities in addition to using traditional indoor, classroom-based lessons. In contrast, students in the control group were taught science using the traditional methods only. The study found that students in the experimental group scored significantly higher on the science achievement test compared to the students in the control group.

The 1998 study sponsored by numerous state departments of education “Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrated Context for Learning,” found that youth who experienced curricula in schools where the environment served as the primary classroom, school gardens included, faired better on standardized measures of achievement in math, reading, language, and spelling.Two similar studies followed in 2000 and 2005, in which the positive findings were consistent with the original study.

The National Gardening Association conducted a study of third and fifth grade classrooms using GrowLab, a curriculum that incorporates either a greenhouse or an in-classroom germination station where students observe a plant’s growth from seed. GrowLab classrooms scored higher in student understanding of life science concepts and science inquiry skills than classrooms that did not use GrowLab lessons. School gardens are outdoor laboratories where plant growth from seed can be observed directly and experimented with; students learn first-hand how to formulate, on a daily basis, a hypothesis and test it. Will the seed grow if I don’t give it water? What if I shade it from any light by accidentally mulching it in? Will the seed germinate if I plant it in early December?

It is worth noting that school gardens provide the necessary landscape for multiple learning styles among groups of students. Teachers who venture into this new setting might discover a different strength revealed in a student who was previously struggling. School gardens provide a space to easily and safely break from the traditional teaching and learning patterns of the indoor classroom.

Every year there were a few students who would make the teachers sigh and shake their heads at the mention of their names. Inside, these students could not sit still, were perpetually distracted, and hard to manage. Even in the garden, maintaining their attention remained difficult. Occasionally, though, one of these energetic students would find a niche in the garden classroom. They would thrive; needing only one explanation of how to thin the rows of carrots, they would meticulously finish an entire bed without supervision. The garden was their medium, their space where excess energy was funneled into solving a problem with their hands.–RKP

School gardens promote healthy lifestyles

Countless studies show a dramatic increase in childhood obesity and there is significant and warranted alarm over what this indicates for our future. Children benefit enormously from a working knowledge of good nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, and this is compellingly taught in a school garden. The bulk of the studies conducted on the benefits of school gardens relate to their overwhelmingly positive influence on students’ nutritional awareness and practices. Experiences in the garden infinitely improve student’s knowledge about and attitudes toward eating vegetables, and also increase their consumption of these foods. From learning to cook fresh vegetables and enjoying a meal with friends, to the hard, physical work of maintaining a garden, students begin to learn pleasurable and positive life-sustaining habits.

A study published in 2007 found that sixth grade student involvement in a garden-based nutrition education program resulted in an increase in their fruit and vegetable consumption by 2½ servings per day, more than twice their overall fruit and vegetable consumption. Hands-on gardening and the sheer proximity to fruits and vegetables in the program significantly influenced food-choice behavior among the students. Another study found that fourth grade students who received garden-based nutrition education were more willing to try certain vegetables than students who received nutrition education without the hands-on garden component; and that their positive attitudes continued for at least six months after the lessons were taught.

Parent after parent would stop me in the hallway, or at school events to tell me that their previously vegetable-hating child was now eating salad at home. Despite the complaints, they said, of not having the “sauce”–the students’ term for the vinaigrette we made in the garden–at home, salad was being consumed where it hadn’t been before. I always found that students who planted, cared for, harvested, and prepared their own food loved it, no matter if it was a bowl of lettuce, sautéed chard, or a handful of carrots. Harvest day was just too exciting to not get swept up in the magic of the process; eating was the ultimate coup.–RKP

Several studies show that students who grow their own food are much more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables or express a preference for these foods. Any garden coordinator who harvests, cooks, and eats with students in a school garden will corroborate this evidence in a heartbeat.

Beyond exposing students to fresh vegetables, school gardening also requires physical work. Simply spending time in the garden pulling weeds, searching for clues in a scavenger hunt, or mulching the beds with compost or straw necessitates activity and movement. Vastly different from sitting in a chair behind a desk, outdoor classrooms are inherently kinetic and instill a bodily awareness that is so important to discover in oneself at a young age. Creating a positive and easy-going atmosphere around physical activity can have effects that last a lifetime.

School gardens instill an environmental stewardship ethic

Every school, whether rural, suburban, or urban, resides within a watershed and within an ecosystem. Be it a neighborhood of concrete sidewalks or a vast woodland that surrounds a school, water, waste, and energy flow into and out of the system at large. These systems can be clearly demonstrated in a school garden. Numerous studentled activities play a role in a school’s ecological footprint: composting food scraps and green waste in the worm bin, mulching garden beds with last year’s straw bale seating, watering the plants with rainwater harvested from the roof of the shed, and picking up trash that has been strewn around the school (and then depositing it in the bin marked “landfill”). Understanding and caring for the ecosystem in which a school resides instills a strong environmental stewardship ethic. The mindfulness taught at school is then transported home to another neighborhood and another watershed, and so on.

Research derived from an intergenerational gardening project (pairing students and elders in the garden) in 2007 showed an increased consciousness of ecology and stewardship in the students who participated. The students expressed an interest in caring for the environment and an understanding of the interconnectedness within nature as an ecological principle. Another study conducted in Texas showed that second and fourth grade students who were part of a school garden program had significantly stronger positive environmental attitudes than students who were not.

School gardens encourage community and social development

Life skills such as teamwork, volunteerism, self-understanding, leadership, decision-making ability, and communication skills are often cited as products of garden-based learning. A survey of third through fifth graders who participated in a gardening program for one year showed significant increases in self-understanding and in their ability to work in groups. These talents are vital to the development of the health of an individual, not to mention a strong community. Students and teachers sit under a tree with the salad they’ve served each other, eating together and engaging in conversation. Older students complete community service hours in the garden, mentoring younger students or helping to sweep and organize the shed. And the garden becomes a centerpiece of many relationships within the school as the community organizes parties, workdays, and fundraisers to support it.

School gardens instill a sense of place

Our sense of place, or surrounding habitat, has become less clearly defined as uncontrolled development devours landscapes throughout the world. A sense of place is fundamental to our understanding of who we are. What the natural world looks, feels, and smells like on our part of the planet, helps us distinguish how we are the same and how we are different from the rest of the world. How will kids grow to care about larger planetary issues such as climate change or diminishing rainforests if they can’t appreciate their own place on this earth? Developing a sense of place is critical to a foundation of ecological awareness and responsibility.

Many factors inform what grows in a habitat: weather, soil, geology, topography, cultural traditions, and history. All of these concepts are readily described in a school garden. There are many lessons that may highlight concepts that are place-based, such as studying the native peoples of your particular area, discerning what type of soil or substrate your garden is on, or observing what part of the city your garden is in and what creatures visit it. With lessons such as these, school gardens are models of place-based education, outdoor classrooms that will foster the next generation of environmental stewards.

It was interesting to note how the lessons in the garden expanded outwardly into the world. Students quickly recognized that the invasive plants that they spent time pulling in the school garden also existed in their own gardens. When we went to the nearby open spaces and parks, they were able to identify the same weeds and understand how they grew and interacted with the other native plants.–ABS

For students, going to the garden is an adventure. Ask them what they like most about the garden and they would say hunting for slugs and snails, creating imaginary worlds while digging in the spare bed, harvesting and eating salad, and simply being outside and allowed to explore during the school day. What is encouraging for educators about students’ eagerness in this setting is that “garden time” is instructional time. The same concepts and standards that are covered in the traditional classroom come alive in the garden: students are counting and graphing the number of slugs versus snails, measuring the length of the spare bed, and discovering the vitamins and minerals in the leafy greens they are harvesting. Real experience with nature can lead to observations and reflections that are worked into more abstract concepts. Students help weed a bed and learn that these plants compete with crops for water and nutrients, and then later they understand the concept of spacing and thinning when tending a bed of beets. Tasting the nectar of the salvia flower requires an exploration of the relationship between plants and pollinators. Children learn first-hand about the systems at work around them, first directly and then more indirectly.

Imaginative and Unstructured Nature Play

Beyond measures of academic achievement and research into the efficacy of gardens as a teaching tool, school gardens are spaces to stand slack-jawed in wonder at the natural world. School gardens are often whimsical and free-flowing in their design and layout. Upon entering, you might see odd hand-lettered signage indicating where the pond is, what bed is growing sunchokes and potatoes, and a temporary village built for garden fairies and gnomes. More and more people are discovering the importance of fostering a child’s sense of wonder and imagination, and a school garden provides a platform for natural open-ended play.

It was the end of the school year and the second grade was watering their bed of sunflowers, which had been germinated in peat cups in the windowsill of their classroom. Mari and Catherine noticed that several of the two-inch seedlings had been trampled and the stems were broken. They spent their free time carefully splinting the tiny sunflower plants with tiny sticks found in the mulch and yarn rummaged from the tool shed. They were deep into doctor play and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the care and attention they gave to their patients. We were all particularly impressed the following September to see that the trampled sunflower plants had not only survived, but grown into seven-foot monsters–the only memory of the break was the bit of yarn still attached to the stems.–ABS

Schoolyard play options are commonly ball games such as basketball or dodgeball, or organized games, such as jump rope. The addition of a garden and nature play introduces a different more imaginative kind of play option that appeals to many students. Many studies reveal the values of unstructured play. All of them point to the cognitive benefits from play in nature, including creativity, problem-solving, focus, and self-discipline. The social and emotional benefits often include cooperation, flexibility, stress reduction, and reduced aggression.

Even the most sports-driven student can be observed abandoning his daily ritual of basketball to explore the fascinating pile of brush that had been pruned out of the oak tree. For days the first and second graders had been using that small pile of brush for inventive games. Pruned branches became peacock tails, forts, trains, brooms, and countless other inventions. Suddenly the basketball courts weren’t so crowded, and the four square lines weren’t so long.–ABS

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