Head full of tight curls, mischievous eyes, and an immense smile peer across the bed of freshly dug soil. “Un, deux, trois” recites the youngster as he places a seed in each hole. Little fingers gently cover each seed with a blanket of earth. One would imagine this to be a scene in someone’s backyard garden, but this in fact is a sight become increasingly common in schoolyards across North America. Numerous studies on the benefits of having “learning gardens” have now taken place. Because of positive findings in the improvement of skills, increase in health, and financial savings, all elementary schools should have a learning garden.
Children who have participated in learning garden programs have shown improvement in skill based areas such as test scoring, social behaviors, social development, and life skills. The findings of one controlled study, performed by Klemmer, Waliczek and Zajicek, which compared science scores between traditional teaching methods and a garden program shows “that fifth grade students who participated in gardening activities as part of their science education scored 14.9 points higher compared to …the control group”(450). In a study on the integration of gardening into school curriculum, DeMarco, Relf and McDaniel states that gardening provided “interact[ion] with nature on a personal level that promotes positive behavior changes”(277). They also found that when the students were gardening together it developed cooperation, and that the teachers were able to heighten social development by introducing students to topics of “community service, diversity in human culture, and environmental stewardship” (279). Furthermore, a one year study of a school garden program by Robinson and Zajicek found that the students had “increased their overall life skills as well as improved teamwork skills and self-understanding”(456). Beane points out that there is a natural progression of life skills, which starts with a young child taking on tasks and having responsibility for the completion of the task (cited in Robinson, 456). The successful completion of a task leads to an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem, progresses to an increase in participation in social activities, a higher likelihood of high school graduation and later a higher life achievement (Beane cited in Robinson, 456). Therefore, having a learning garden essentially leads to a higher success rate in life for the students who participate.
Another added benefit of learning gardens is the positive effect they have on health. Rui Hai Liu of Cornell University points out that daily vegetable and fruit consumption results in a reduction of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer disease, cataracts, cancer, stroke and more (517S). Liu also states that prevention is more effective than treatment (517S). In order to prevent these illnesses, children need to eat fruits and vegetables regularly. Health Canada recommends that children aged 4-8 eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day and that children aged 9-13 eat six servings per day. A Statistics Canada report by Didier Garriguet shows that 70% of children aged 4-8, 62% of girls aged 9-13, and 68% of boys aged 9-13 eat less than the recommended daily intake (20). How does this relate to learning gardens? It is not enough to know that children need to eat more fruits and vegetables. What has to occur is for the children to eat the fruits and vegetables. A study by PhD student Jennifer L. Morris points out that increasing vegetable consumption is a two-step process: the first step is exposure, of which learning gardens are a great method of repeating exposure, and the second step is to increase the willingness to try the vegetables (46). The children involved in Morris’ study “were more willing to taste” the vegetables in comparison to the students who had not participated, and that the learning garden students ranked the taste of the vegetables more favourably after the gardening experience (45). When a child is more willing to try a fruit or vegetable and feels that the fruit or vegetable tastes good they are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables in comparison to a child that is not as willing to try. This increase in vegetable and fruit consumption leads to better health.
Learning gardens also have positive effects on health for the simple reason that it is an outdoor activity. Harvard Health Publications (HHP) points out that because outdoor activities increase exposure to light and Vitamin D the results are a positive effect on mood, as well as protective effects from diseases including cancer, depression, osteoporosis, stroke and heart attacks (1). The improvement in concentration, quicker healing rate, and increased physical activity are also listed by HHP as health related benefits of outdoor activities (1).
All of these benefits in skills and health lead to another interesting aspect of learning gardens: the financial savings. The most obvious is the savings that will result from the health benefits. An overall reduction in a wide variety of illness and disease will directly affect the cost of medical care. According to the Healthy Canadians report by Health Canada, “[i]n 2010, total health expenditures in Canada were forecast as $191.6 billion” (6). In 2004, Margot Shields of Statistics Canada reports that the rate of overweight/obese children had risen 70% since 1978 (29). As being overweight in childhood relates to health issues in later life, an increase of overweight/obese children of 70% is going to drastically affect medical costs in the coming decades; consequently, as learning gardens contribute to wiser eating choices and physical activity, then they also lead to reductions of overweight/obese children, and the associated health costs.
Another financial savings aspect is in the cost savings of growing versus buying fruits and vegetables. For example, one package of carrot seeds at $3 contains anywhere from 500-1000 seeds. Even with a low success rate of 25%, there would still be a crop of 125-250 carrots. This is a much larger number than the same $3 would yield in the grocery store. Obviously, there are more costs to the growing of the vegetables and it is also dependent upon the type of plants grown; but as Dan Shapley points out a 1600 square foot garden could easily produce over $2000 in fruits and vegetables, 7 times the value of the original investment (Shapley). If there was an excess of fruits or vegetables, the students could also choose to sell the produce as a fundraising venture for other school projects, or they could donate the produce to the local food bank or soup kitchen, which again would translate to an overall savings for the community in general.
Critics of a learning garden might question whether gardening is really the best method to produce increased skills, improved health and money savings; but it does not really matter if learning gardens are the best method. What does matter is that learning gardens are effective. Critics might question the feasibility of a learning garden and the participation rate of teachers, which is certainly a relevant question. The answer is that there are numerous proven programs already developed and therefore it is more a matter of evaluating the different programs to find the one that best suits the school and the teachers. Critics might also argue that technology is the way of the future and that gardening is old school; but the fact remains that everyone needs to eat and therefore the need for the knowledge of how to grow fruits and vegetables is still of importance despite the surge in technological advancements. Between the increases in skills, the improvement in health, and the financial savings, it simply makes sense that all elementary schools should have a learning garden.
DeMarco, Laurie, Diane Relf, and Alan McDaniel. “Integrating Gardening into the Elementary School Curriculum.” HortTechnology 9.2 (1999): 276-281. Web. 5 Nov.2013
Garriguet, Didier, “Canadians’ Eating Habits.” Health Reports Statistics Canada 18.2 (2007): 17-32 Web. 9 Nov. 2013
Government of Canada. “Canada’s Food Guide.” Health Canada. Government of Canada, 2012. Web. 9 Nov. 2013
Government of Canada. “Healthy Canadians-A Federal Report on Comparable Health Indicators 2010.” Health Canada. Government of Canada. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2013
Klemmer, C.D., T.M. Waliczek, and J.M. Zajicek. “Growing Minds: The Effect of a School Gardening Program on the Science Achievement of Elementary Students.” HortTechnology 15.3 (2005): 448-452. Web. 5 Nov. 2013
Liu, Rui Hai. “Health Benefits of Fruit and Vegetables are from Additive and Synergistic Combinations of Phytochemicals.” Abstract. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78.3 (2003): 517S-520S. Web 9 Nov. 2013
Morris, Jennifer L., Ann Neustadter, and Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr. “First-grade Gardeners More Likely to Taste Vegetables.” California Agriculture 55.1 (2001): 43-46 Web. 8 Nov 2013
“A Prescription for Better Health: Go Alfresco.” Harvard Health Publications 35.9 (2010): 1 Web. 9 Nov. 2013
Robinson, Carolyn W., and Jayne M. Zajicek. “Growing Minds: The Effects of a One-year School Garden Program on Six Constructs of Life Skills of Elementary School Children.” HortTechnology 15.3 (2005): 453-457 Web 6 Nov. 2013
Shapley, Dan. “The $600 Garden Vegetable You Can Grow.” the daily green. Hearst Communications, 28 March 2011. Web. 9 Nov. 2013
Shields, Margot. “Overweight and Obesity Among Children and Youth.” Health Reports Statistics Canada 17.3 (2006): 27-42 Web. 9 Nov. 2013
West Coast Seeds. West Coast Seeds. WCS, 2013. Web 9 Nov. 2013