A growing body of evidence is pointing towards the benefit of school gardens in enhancing students’ overall learning and development. Gardens are increasingly being recognized as laboratories where students can practically apply what they have learnt in the classroom, and where a disjointed curriculum can come together through hands-on experience that draws on math, science and social science, as well as contribute towards the development of the student in a broader sense.
This was the position of nonprofit organization Center for Ecoliteracy in a recent essay, “To Weap or Reap: the school garden debate”. “[School gardens] are places where students can explore the living environment and be challenged to consider: What is the web of life? How do organisms interact with each other and the physical environment? How do we get and use the food energy all living organisms need to survive and begin to understand the effect of human activities on the biosphere?”, wrote Lisa Bennet, the essay’s author.
Bennet cites studies showing the benefit of school gardens in contributing towards :
- Social and emotional learning: Such programs were shown to lead to improvement in school and class behavior and decrease in conduct problems, such as classroom misbehavior and aggression.
- Project-based and place-based learning, which demonstrated higher academic scores, improved behavior in class, increased self-esteem, improved conflict resolution, problem solving, and higher-level thinking. Research also showed that teachers become more excited and motivated, more engaged with students, and more able to collaborate effectively with other educators.
- Student health: Students have the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of fresh and healthy food, and therefore are more likely to try new fruit and vegetables, and have more chance to develop healthier habits as adults. Children who eat well are more likely to perform well and have fewer behavior problems.
- Science and ecological literacy: Students with garden-based learning score higher on science achievement tests. Additionally, Bennet highlights, “gardens are an ideal right-sized place for students to develop the ecological literacy they will need to address the coming environmental challenges and be leaders and citizens who understand how the natural world works, see the patterns that connect human activity to nature, and have the knowledge and values to act effectively on that understanding.”
“School gardens are not in the same category as after-school electives, such as chess, cooking club, or chorus. Schools use gardens not to give their students a chance to develop a hobby but to enhance their overall instruction.”
The essay was provoked following an article published in the Atlantic, which argued that school gardens were effectively robbing children of the time they should be spending on more academic subjects. Its author suggested that because there has not yet been significant research to show that school gardens advance reading or math, they are a diversion from a school's central mission.
“[The article’s author] ignores an enormous body of research,” says Bennet. “She also ignores nearly a century of educational philosophy and practice that makes one basic point very clear: If you want students to perform well in school and beyond, you have to consider the whole child and whole-school experience.”
Center for Ecoliteracy