Most people aren’t aware, but school gardens grow much more than vegetables and fruits. Youth gardens grow engaged and active learners by addressing the physical and social well-being of children as well as their need for mastery of academic subjects.
Just like a flower planted in a garden, children have basic needs that must be met before they can really flourish in the school environment. When students eat healthful foods, engage in physical activity and experience positive social interactions with peers and their community, classroom behaviors and overall academic performance improve. School gardens allow educators to not only teach about healthy lifestyle choices, but to demonstrate and give children the opportunity to practice healthy habits. By modeling nutritious food choices and placing value on physical activity and positive social interactions, educators can use the garden as a tool to cultivate behaviors and ways of thinking in children that will impart lifelong benefits.
School and youth gardens provide a place for children to be introduced to fruits and vegetables without the pressure a formal, sit-down meal can bring. Students are also far more likely to taste fruits and vegetables that they have grown themselves. Unfortunately, most youth in the United States do not meet the daily recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake. While school gardens may not yield enough feed for children on a larger scale, they let kids expand their food horizons and sample a wide variety of fresh produce that may pique a child’s interest when it’s time to make choices in the cafeteria and at home.
Physical activity and socialization are keys to a child’s academic performance and overall well-being. Children who play and work together learn to problem solve and socialize in a mutual endeavor, even if they don’t have a great deal in common otherwise. Engaging in meaningful and results-oriented tasks like planting, weeding and turning compost gives children a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride. Through the garden children contribute to something greater than themselves, allowing them to see beyond their own perceived limitations, both mental and physical. Many children who struggle in a typical classroom setting thrive in the garden, where they can be creative and engage in hands-on tasks.
Academic instruction in the garden may seem challenging for many teachers. A full calendar of required lessons and testing leaves little room for fun extracurricular activities. The garden does not have to be the sole work of an after school club or a recess option. The key to integrating the garden into daily academic activities is swapping out a classroom lesson with one that involves garden work and meets the same or similar standards. There are many great publications designed to help teachers connect garden activities to a wide spectrum of subjects. Curricula like the Growing Classroom, Math in the Garden, Books in Bloom, and the Junior Master Garden Guide have educator-tested lessons using simple garden tasks to make direct connections to math concepts, science, language arts and much more. Lessons and activities conducted through the lens of the garden will lead to more engaging experiences, including many hands-on explorations that make learning more fun and accessible than lectures or paperwork.
A garden doesn’t have to occupy a large space for children to learn from growing food, flowers or herbs. Many schools maintain simple container gardens on playgrounds, add indoor light units to classrooms or construct just a few raised beds to demonstrate concepts. Giving children an opportunity to explore the environment, the food system, and an alternative approach to the subject matter addressed in their typical school day can make some lasting changes to a child’s well-being and understanding of what it means to learn.
Julia Parker-Dickerson, is the director of Education Programs for KidsGardening.org. She has over a decade of practical experience in the field of education. Julia has worked in a variety of classroom settings across the United States. In an effort to bridge the connection between the garden and the cafeteria and help students and educators connect with food, KidsGardening.org recently entered a unique partnership with Chartwells K-12, a food service provider for schools across the country.
If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about education. We offer newsletters covering K-12 education, Higher Education and more.