The blossoming health and academic benefits of school gardens

By Carina Storrs, Special to CNN

(CNN) Many of the kids who go to John J. Pershing Elementary School in Dallas do not spend much time outdoors. They live in what some would describe as unsafe neighborhoods and their parents often do not let them go outside and play.

“They look at life through a window,” said Margie Hernandez, the school’s principal.
But these kids are at least experiencing the great outdoors when they are at school. Four years ago, Pershing built a garden that has grown to include a pond and four chickens. Teachers take students into the garden at least once a week for class or just for a walk, to pick some basil or water the chickens.
When they are in the garden, “children who normally would not speak or raise their hand are now engaging in a lesson without being prompted,” Hernandez said. And the effects seem to last after they leave the garden. The students are scoring better on standardized tests and are just more excited in general about school.
Pershing is one of many schools in low-income neighborhoods in Texas that are partnering with a program called REAL School Gardens. This fall, the program, which started about 10 years ago, will be bringing a garden to its 100th school. It will soon expand to the Washington, D.C., area.
REAL School Gardens helps schools plan and build their garden based on students’ designs. Although most gardens — unlike Pershing’s — do not have chickens, all of them have vegetable beds and walkways, and most of them have something for shade, such as a gazebo. The program works with teachers at the school for three years to help them adapt their lesson plans to the garden environment.
“The guiding principle is that if we can get kids more engaged with learning, there would be a better foundation for academic success later on,” said Jeanne McCarty, CEO of REAL School Gardens. “Kids are more engaged in real world, hands-on learning, particularly at the elementary school level,” she added.
Teachers at schools that partner with REAL School Gardens report that their students seem more engaged in lessons. There are also short-term signs of academic success. Three years after getting school gardens, between 12% and 15% more children in these schools passed standardized tests.
The program has also found that about twice as many teachers report being satisfied with their job after their school cultivates its garden. “We expected that students would be more engaged, but as a result it was re-engaging teachers with the profession of teaching. It was exciting and surprising and valuable,” said McCarty, adding that teacher turnover is a big problem in urban school districts.
About 27% of public elementary schools have a school garden, according to research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. However they are less common in low-income areas, where REAL School Gardens is focusing, and in non-urban areas.
School gardens have been picking up in popularity over the last 15 years. “I think it’s a shift, it’s a realization of childhood obesity issues and gardening as a really good way to address those issues through exercise, changes in diet and nutrition, and [also] a focus on improving academic performance,” said Kathryn S. Orvis, associate professor of youth development and agricultural education at Purdue University. She has been studying school gardens but is not involved in the REAL School Gardens program.
In addition to the academic gains, studies suggest that students who have a school garden have a better attitude about vegetables, consume more fruits and veggies, and get more exercise.
“Up until now, school gardens have been grass roots,” Orvis said. Before programs such as REAL School Gardens, schools had to raise their own money or get grants from the National Gardening Association, she said. Examples of other programs that are working to increase the use of school gardens are CitySprouts, which works with schools in Cambridge and Boston, and Education Outside in San Francisco.
These programs “would help overcome some of the barriers of getting a school garden in,” Ortiz said. One of the major barriers is building and maintaining these gardens year-round and year-after-year, which can require commitment from teachers and parents as well as help from gardeners in the community, she added.
Another challenge is that “teachers are afraid to step out of the box and teach material in a different way, even though we have research that shows that … it is more impactful learning,” Ortiz said.
At Pershing Elementary, teachers are incorporating school gardens into all kinds of lessons, Hernandez said. Students gather data on plants they then analyze and graph, they write about their experiences in the garden. “[Even] a reading circle outside is different. It awakens your senses,” Hernandez said.
In one of the more creative lesson plans that teachers at Pershing developed with teacher trainers from REAL School Gardens, fourth-graders learned about Texas history by growing native plants that early settlers would have grown for food.
The garden is the first place that students want to go when they get to school, Hernandez said. One student even showed up early for school this week, sad to learn they had to wait until classes start on August 24, Hernandez said. She attributes a lot of that enthusiasm to the garden. “They have a sense of purpose, they have something to take care of,” she said.

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