For more than 20 years the National Gardening Association (NGA) has devoted itself to supporting gardening opportunities for kids of all ages. We know that when kids have a chance to garden, their attitudes toward food and wellness change, they feel stimulated to perform better in school, and develop life skills such as teamwork and personal responsibility. We have documented hundreds of cases where gardening has made a difference in the lives of young people. During National Garden Month we encourage parents and grandparents to start gardening with their kids. The benefits are too strong to ignore.
The best way to stem the epidemic of chronic child health problems is to change children's attitudes toward foods and exercise and to make healthful foods more available. For years, NGA has highlighted studies showing that gardening is one of the best ways to influence kids' acceptance of fresh vegetables and fruits. For example, a Texas A&M study shows that after participating in a gardening program, children had more positive attitudes toward fruit and vegetable snacks, and their preference for vegetables improved. Also, researchers at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have found that consumption of fruits and vegetables, as a habit in childhood, is an important predictor of higher fruit and vegetable consumption in adulthood and can help to prevent or delay chronic disease conditions.
Not only does gardening encourage kids to eat better, it helps improve their academic performance as well. According to another Texas study, third, fourth, and fifth grade students who participated in a youth gardening program scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students that did not experience any garden-based learning activities.
In South Carolina teachers have studied third and forth grade summer school students and found that those working in the gardening program made significant, measurable gains in reading, reading comprehension, spelling, and written expression.
Gardening has also been shown to foster life skills such as cooperation, leadership, and responsibility. Studies at Indiana University showed that students who gardened had an increased sense of pride, satisfaction, and belonging.
Studies in Bexar County, Texas showed that school gardening increased participants' self-esteem, helped them develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, fostered stronger relationships among family members, and increased parent involvement.
While it's important to document the many benefits of gardening with kids, the message hits home when we look at an exemplary program, such as Gila Crossing Community School, winner of a 2005 Youth Garden Grant and a 2005 Healthy Sprouts Award.
The school serves 430 Native American students on Akimel o'odham Reservation, and one of their biggest challenges is the epidemic level of obesity and diabetes. "It's not just learning about where food comes from, but for the kids on this reservation it's learning about their history, culture, and a way to break the cycle of poor health and poverty," says Tim Moore, agriculture teacher.
"When I first talked about growing traditional foods, the kids thought I meant fried bread," Tim laughs. Now they've learned to love fresh vegetables and fruits. The two-acre garden is growing food year round and is part of the curriculum from first through eighth grade. "Food is a very successful teaching tool in the school," says Tim. "Thanks to grants from NGA I was able to get curriculum materials I needed to incorporate nutrition education into more of my classes." Kids not only use the garden to learn about math, writing, and science, they get to take home the vegetables. There is still widespread poverty on the reservation and many kids come to school hungry. "Sixty percent of the food grown is sent home with the students to help feed their families," says Tim.
The Gila Crossing Garden Program has become a model for other tribal schools because so many different types of learning take place there. In addition to being woven into the curriculum, the program teaches kids better eating habits and community values, and provides a way to share the tribal heritage with the next generation.
"One of my favorite stories is about our sixth grade class building a garden for a preschool teacher here," says Tim. "Every day the teacher's mother would come and sit in the garden. Pretty soon she started teaching the young children songs in Apache about gardening and the earth." The elders and kids are interacting to preserve their rich culture, and that's a gift that will last long past harvest.
If you have kids or teens, or if you're a grandparent, encourage their schools to start a gardening program or volunteer at an existing one. You don't have to be an activist to make a difference - for the most part it's the small moments that make the largest impression on your child. A simple garden experience shared with a caring adult can shape a child's beliefs and attitudes for the rest of his or her life.
Here are some other simple ways to celebrate National Garden Month.
For more information on school gardening programs, visit Kidsgardening.org Web site.