Gardening, one of the world’s oldest hobbies, is universally associated with nutrition, physical health, and community beautification and less known for its role in promoting mental health. For those who are not as familiar with gardening, the idea of working in the dirt may not sound therapeutic at all. It may also seem odd to find school aged children motivated to take up gardening. However, gardening can provide students with the tools they need to manage their emotions and improve their learning potential. For example, one study found that students who were involved in a gardening program showed higher levels of self-understanding, interpersonal skills, and cooperative skills in the classroom as compared to students who did not participate in a gardening program (Robinson and Zajick, 2005). As students learn to self-regulate their emotions and behavior, the overall school climate improves (Yoder et al., 2017; Osher, Kendziora, and Chinen, 2008).
How does gardening link to mental wellness and academic growth?
While most research and attention on school gardening projects focus on long-term impact, these projects can have several immediate outcomes. Gardening plays a unique role in helping the body reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone released in stressful situations (Van den Berg and Custers, 2011). As a result, gardening can be an effective tool for managing anger, anxiety, and other negative emotions (Wilson and Christensen, 2011; Wood et al., 2016).
Given the physiological benefits of gardening, it is unsurprising to find that individuals of all ages who garden report feeling “relaxed” and “calm” when gardening (Gross and Lane, 2007; Habib and Doherty, 2007; Milligan, Gatrell and Bingley, 2004). For students, this feeling of comfort creates an environment conducive for building self-confidence, working with others, and cooperating during learning (Robinson and Zajicek, 2005). Over the past decade, experimental research on the social and emotional benefits of gardening has been limited (Clatworthy, Hinds, and Camic, 2013). However, related studies indicate that when students are able to build their emotional and social capacities, these skills enable students to increase their academic performance by improving their participation in the classroom (Durlak et. al., 2011; Osher, Kendziora, and Chinen, 2008).
What do school gardening projects look like?
School gardens exist in both cold and warm climates, housed in a greenhouse or outside, rural areas with a lot of space, or even crowded urban spaces. While school gardens serve students across all grade levels, programs are more common among elementary schools and less common at the preschool level (USDA, 2015).
Each school gardening project should adapt to fit the needs and goals of the school and its students (Center for Ecoliteracy, 2007). For example, one school may use a garden to provide produce to the community, while another school may focus on creating a garden to beautify the school grounds. Meanwhile, some schools may choose to integrate gardening activities into classroom instruction, during recess, or as an after-school activity (USDA, 2016).
Regardless of the garden’s goals, all school gardening projects must consider the following:
- Space and size;
- Budget; and
- Management and maintenance (GrowToLearn, 2015).
Research on gardening programs in New York identified additional factors for successful gardening programs, including:
- Integrating school gardening activities into instructional time;
- Promoting the value of the garden to increase its appreciation; and
- Establishing the garden in an area that is centrally located to the school (Burt, Koch, Uno, and Contento, 2016).
Where are school gardening projects being implemented and how?
Over the past decade, the number of schools engaging in school gardening projects has grown significantly. Nationwide, the number of elementary school gardens increased from 11% in 2007 to 27% in 2013 (Turner, Sandoval, and Chaloupka, 2014). According to the latest census report on school garden programs found that 44% of districts surveyed have adopted school gardening programs. This represented a 42% increase from past census reports (USDA, 2015). Most programs have been implemented in affluent cities in the western region of the United States. Schools in less economically resourced areas, rural areas, and schools located in the Midwest are less likely to implement gardening programs (Turner, Sandoval, and Chaloupkathe, 2014).
To increase participation, non-profit organizations are providing technical assistance and grant funding to schools to help implement school gardening programs. In some districts and states – including Iowa, Missouri, and Washington, DC – policymakers have designed policy encouraging schools to adopt gardening projects (National Farm to School Network, 2014). As more state and local agencies become involved in these initiatives, more schools can discover the benefits that school gardening can bring to school climate improvement efforts and student success.