Today, school gardens are cropping up all over the country as part of the growing farm-to-school movement. According to research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as of 2013, nearly 27 percent of US public elementary schools had a school or classroom garden program—and that percentage is growing all the time.
So why exactly are school gardens becoming so popular? As reported by education experts and teachers alike, school garden programs are wonderfully engaging educational tools that offer a host of both short- and long-term benefits to students, their families, and their communities. Some of the reasons why schools should consider starting a classroom garden program include the following:
School gardens improve physical health.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of a school garden program is that it facilitates students’ access to fresh, healthy food. Not only do students often have the opportunity to eat the produce they grow at school meals or in their cafeteria, but they also have a greater awareness of what healthy eating means and are more likely to consume more servings of fruits and vegetables overall. Even more importantly, studies have shown that these healthy eating habits are more likely to continue into adulthood. Finally, the physical tasks involved in taking care of a community garden help students to get much-needed exercise and fresh air.
School gardens boost academic achievement.
Classroom gardens serve as excellent educational tools, providing students with engaging, hands-on learning opportunities across a variety of subjects. And students are notably responding to these active learning strategies. Studies have shown that students who participate in school garden programs score higher on science achievement tests than students who receive traditional classroom instruction only, and they also take more pleasure in learning and display a more positive attitude toward education.
School gardens support social and emotional development.
The unique environment of a school garden allows students to encounter their peers in new ways and to make important social and emotional discoveries about themselves and each other. For example, a study of children in grades three through five showed that participants in a classroom garden program demonstrated increased self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and cooperative skills. Similarly, research from 2006 revealed that children who work in gardens are more likely to be accepting of people who are different from them.
In addition, school gardens let children experience the responsibility of caring for and nurturing something while developing the confidence that comes from fulfilling that responsibility. Teachers and children alike also report that school gardens are an important “safe space” (i.e., when working or simply spending time in a classroom garden, students typically describe themselves as feeling calm, happy, and relaxed).
School gardens teach environmental awareness.
A school garden can be a very powerful environmental education tool. Today, many school-age children, particularly those from urban and/or low-income communities, have little or no connection to where their food comes from. With the opportunity to engage in farming practices on a small scale, children can learn firsthand about the responsibilities and impacts of agriculture. They’ll also gain a greater appreciation for the natural world by studying the complex web of interactions among the different elements needed to grow and sustain life. Many students report that classroom garden programs gave them their first chance to dig in the dirt and to watch plants grow.
The benefit of school gardens reaches the broader community.
While school gardens naturally have the most direct impact on the students who work in them, their benefits extend beyond the classroom. According to a research study from 2000, 68 percent of students who participated in a school garden program shared what they were learning with their friends and family, thus showing how the benefits of school gardens can be spread to a much larger community.
Community gardens, including school gardens, can also contribute to better and safer neighborhoods. The American Community Gardening Association has credited the presence of community gardens with a reduction in violent and non-violent crime and an overall increase in feelings of safety.
Finally, teachers can benefit from school gardens as much as students can. Previous studies have shown that teachers at schools with classroom garden programs have higher workplace morale and greater feelings of job satisfaction.
More support is available to launch a school garden.
For many years, school gardens were operated purely as grassroots programs, but as a result of their increasing popularity, more structured support programs have been launched. For example, the Out Teach organization (formerly known as REAL School Gardens) works nationwide to support schools in low-income or underserved communities to plan and build classroom gardens and other outdoor learning opportunities. There is also support available at the municipal level; for example, Education Outside and CitySprouts are city-specific programs that work to increase the use of school gardens.