School Gardens Measure Up

By Eve Pranis

"The science concepts and skills students gained from our garden project were impressive, but perhaps more significant was the self-esteem that flourished," reports special education teacher Joan Gould from Athens, GA.

Educators in growing classrooms have little doubt about the benefits students reap from living garden laboratories. Students' comments, behaviors, and products; photos and portfolios; teachers' observations; and parent reports also speak volumes about how students are growing. Nevertheless, for many funders, policymakers, and others, "hard" data often carries more weight. We have scoured the country in search of results of school gardening research studies that might help fuel your arguments and proposals. Following are some highlights from which to draw.

Underachievers Grow Literacy Skills and Self-Esteem

"I was concerned about how to support underachieving students' emotional and cognitive growth," reports teacher and doctoral student Barbara Sheffield from Columbia, SC. Intrigued by the concept of using gardens as learning tools, in 1992 she launched a third and fourth grade summer school project that used a whole language approach with gardening as the central theme. "Beyond offering rich language arts opportunities, the garden was a natural context for science inquiries, math problem solving, and developing social skills such as working together to puzzle out problems," says Barbara.

The Results. Results of formal pre- and post-tests of achievement (Peabody Individual Achievement Test), self-esteem (Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory), and attitudes toward school (School Attitude Measure) indicated greater gains in all three areas than control classes made. The most significant student gains were in self-esteem and achievement in reading, reading comprehension, spelling, and written expression.

"Of course," says Barbara, "there were many additional qualitative indicators of student motivation and attitudes toward school that were not part of what we formally measured." She explains that students routinely came in early, stayed late, and had no absences. Parents also reported that their children had never been so excited about school, and that they were anxious to get back in the fall to continue tending to and showing off their garden.

Note: Take care not to generalize results of any study to other audiences, contexts, and curricula.

Gardening Improves Environmental Attitudes

Watching a seedling unfurl, witnessing the death of a neglected plant, raising a garden for butterflies -- such experiences help students acquire a direct, personal understanding of what living things require to thrive, and how they how they adapt and interact. These connections serve as a vital foundation for developing a lifelong ethic of environmental stewardship.

Texas A&M graduate student Sonja Skelly designed Project Green, in which second and fourth grade teachers used a cross-disciplinary gardening curriculum for one semester. The project goal was to integrate environmental education using gardening as a vehicle. Sonja conducted pre- and post-tests with 237 children using the Children's Environmental Response Inventory to assess environmental attitudes.

The Results. Students in gardening classrooms scored significantly better than those in control classrooms on measures of appreciation for the environment and concern about human impact. The results also revealed that second graders had a greater change in positive environmental attitudes than the fourth graders -- certainly a case for starting early.

The Gardening/Nutrition Link

Another study conducted at Texas A&M by graduate student Sarah Lineberger examined how a 16-month gardening program affected third and fourth graders' nutritional attitudes and behaviors. The researcher used a fruit and vegetable preference questionnaire and a 24-hour food recall journal to measure students' attitudes and behaviors at the beginning and end of the gardening program.

The Results. Results indicate that student attitudes toward vegetables significantly improved, as did their preferences for fruit and vegetable snacks.

GrowLab Program Scores

When a teacher uses our K-8 indoor garden-based curriculum guide, GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds, how do students grow? The National Gardening Association conducted a 1992 study of third and fifth grade classrooms using GrowLab Indoor Gardens and the curriculum.

The Results. GrowLab classrooms scored significantly higher than control classrooms in students' understanding of key life science concepts and science inquiry skills. Students in fifth grade classrooms in the same study scored significantly higher than control classes on attitude scales measuring "concern for the environment" and "confidence in ability to do science."

When 300 teachers were asked in a related survey what significant gains students had made as a result of the GrowLab program, a majority spontaneously reported improvement in each of the following areas:

  • responsibility
  • cooperative behaviors
  • enthusiasm, interest, initiative and love for plants and science
  • environmental awareness and concern
  • understanding of life science concepts
  • science process, problem solving, and math skills
  • pride, confidence, and self-esteem
  • language arts skills

Self Esteem, Social Skills, Behavior

Gardening teachers overwhelmingly report that these are some of the most prominent benefits their kids reap. Here are two research-based highlights:

  • In Laurie DeMarco's 1997 study at Virginia Tech of teachers who had integrated gardening into the curriculum, 75 percent reported that student behavior often or always improves when the garden is a learning context.
  • Researchers at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX, conducted a three-year school garden study (1995-1997) of 12 third grade classrooms. They found that self-esteem in gardening classrooms increased in year one and remained high during the next two years. Students in gardening classrooms also exhibited a greater increase in social concerns (e.g., feeding the hungry) and improved relationships with other students and parents than did students in control classrooms.

Research results aside, real student voices and products speak volumes about what kids harvest from gardening laboratories. Document them when you can. This gem was written by a young gardener in a California juvenile facility.

As I lay in the grass
I hear my conscience pass
telling me to continue to take my garden class
so that I can learn how to plant a flower
take over the world and have all the power
I'm not talking about the power that gives out pollution
I'm trying to come out with a new solution
that can start a new way of thinking
and stop the world from sinking
'cause the clock's ticking
and I'm tweaking
so what I'm trying to say is stop the pollution
and start a sustainable revolution

Gardening Meets Special Needs

"Over and over we've found that kids who have been labeled behaviorally disturbed, learning impaired, and so on, make great strides in our garden program. When they have an opportunity to create a garden, become 'experts,' and share their expertise with others (often in a role reversal), their skills and confidence soar."
-- Karen Williger, New Orleans, LA

"A season after initiating a therapeutic garden for adolescents, I was floored by their enthusiasm and ability to focus on tasks. It was also amazing to see how fast group cohesion, trust, and self-esteem grew."
-- Amy Stein, Yardley, PA

What You Can Do

After exploring what academic researchers have uncovered about how students benefit from gardening programs, we wondered what strategies and tools classroom teachers routinely use to document and make sense of what kids are reaping.

By regularly recording what you see and hear as you observe students engaged in garden-related activities and conversations, and by gathering a variety of related student work, you can capture authentic data that serves several purposes:

  • Helps you adjust instruction to meet student needs, by providing continuous feedback on student thinking, understanding, and skills.
  • Provides palpable evidence of student thinking that can be interpreted alongside other data (e.g., test scores) and reported to others.
  • Enables you to gather and share evidence of student gains in areas that are less easily "measurable:" self-esteem, connection to the natural world, and so on.

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