Judith L. Warren, Vice President, Bexar County Master Gardeners
Remember early gardening experiences. Do you have memories of your parents, grandparents or neighbors having a vegetable garden? Often, gardening is inspired by early pleasant memories of picking vegetables from the garden, or picking berries or apples from the orchard fruit that a family member used to make a pie for dessert. Other experiences include working on farms – from Texas to Washington State during the summer. Some families in Texas found summer work for the entire family as migrant farm labor. The work could be hard and some families were divided with one parent and an older child being laborers and one parent staying home with younger children. I’ve heard both sad and good memories of those summers from older San Antonio residents. But, I don’t know how many people have told me that their early memories of tasting a “home grown” tomato. There is something about “fresh from the vine!” What memories do you have of early gardening?
This article will examine past research on the effects of school gardens on children related to health, social behavior including environmental stewardship and on academic learning. Specifically, my recent research will be shared in detail. Proven strategies to engage children in early gardening experiences can be valuable for families, communities and our country. As our country has become more urban, children have less opportunity to experience the natural outdoors, including growing food for the family and consuming food fresh from the garden. We have rising rates of child obesity, early onset of type 2 diabetes and a host of other health conditions, including high blood pressure, exacerbated by overweight, which cost us all.
The percentage of people growing up on farms has changed a lot over the past 70+ years. In 1935, there were 7 million farms compared to 2 million in 2019. Today, 80.79 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, often in food deserts with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. School gardens have long been identified as a way to bring beneficial experiences to children. In the early 1900s, Maria Montessori identified a number of benefits from children gardening including appreciation for nature, increased responsibility and relationship skills and patience.1 Indeed, my youngest daughter learned to try radishes at age 3 when she planted seeds and brought 3 small radishes home from her Montessori school. She also ate a floret of broccoli, exclaiming “Baby go eating!” To this day, she is a healthy eater.
In 2009, D. Blair published an extensive review of research on the benefits of school gardens.2 Specific studies showed that gardening increased elementary school children’s scores on environmental conservation.3 Studies in Bexar County, Texas showed that school gardening increased self-esteem, helped students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, helped foster relationships with family members, and increased parental involvement.4 Another study with elementary school and junior high school students showed that students gained more positive attitudes about environmental issues after participating in a school garden program.5 Third, fourth, and fifth grade students that participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students that did not experience any garden-based learning activities.6 These investigations demonstrated the benefits of a hands-on approach to learning, specifically in a garden where science, math, language arts and nutrition can be experienced rather than just read about in a book.
Blair indicated, however, that few studies on school gardens were rigorous enough to demonstrate specific health benefits.2 The incidence of childhood obesity was rapidly increasing in the US, and specifically Texas, bringing the increased threat for Type 2 Diabetes in juveniles and workforce disability before age 40. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service – Horticulture, Nutrition and Health, Texas A&M’s School of Rural Public Health and the University of Texas School of Public Health-the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the Austin Campus collaborated to investigate the effect of a school garden intervention on child obesity. In 2011, our team was awarded one of the $5 million competitive grants from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture(NIFA)’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative(AFRI), U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This rigorous Texas!Grow!Eat!Go! study would collect data from children and their families over 2 years to determine the individual and combined effects of two Extension school-based interventions. 28 low-income schools in Texas were randomized to 1 of 4 conditions: (1) School Garden intervention (Learn!Grow!Eat!Go! [LGEG]), (2) PA intervention (Walk Across Texas [WAT!]), (3) both Garden and PA intervention (Combined), or (4) neither Garden nor PA intervention (Control). Participants included 1326 third grade students and parents(42% Hispanic; 78% free/reduced lunch). Student and parent data were collected at the beginning and end of the school year.
Two different sets of analyses measuring pre–post changes in outcomes within and across conditions were estimated by factorial ANOVAs using mixed models adjusted for demographics. Results: Main effect analyses indicate that relative to children at schools that did not receive LGEG, children at schools that received LGEG, either individually or in combination with WAT!, showed significant increases in Nutrition knowledge, Vegetable preference, and Vegetable tasted ( p < 0.001 in all cases). Within-group analyses show that compared to Comparison, children in the WAT! group significantly increased in the amount of time parents and children were active together ( p = 0.038). In addition, children in LGEG and WAT! schools significantly decreased BMI percentile ( p = 0.042, p = 0.039, respectively), relative to children in Comparison schools.
Conclusions: Both the garden and PA interventions independently produced significant changes related to healthy lifestyle behaviors. However, combining the two interventions did not show greater impact than the single interventions, underscoring the need for more research to determine how to better implement comprehensive interventions at schools.
As one of the Principal Investigator on this study, I can attest to the many positive comments from Principals, teachers and parents alike about the benefits of kids growing vegetables. One Principal told of several young boys who were often in his office for misbehavior prior to becoming involved in their classroom garden. These boys were now bringing him to show their tomatoes – full of pride and enthusiasm through the hands-on science and math learning. This project was my inspiration to become a Master Gardener through Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. I hope this article will encourage you to volunteer at a school and INSPIRE a new generation of children to learn math, science, reading, nutrition and health, to experience fresh vegetables, to be active outdoors and to create lasting positive memories through a school garden.
- Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori Method. Schocken.
- Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden: An evaluative review of the benefits of school gardening. Journal of Environmental Education, 40(2), 15-38.
- Skelly, S. & J. Zajicek. (1998). The Effect of an Interdisciplinary Garden Program on the Environmental Attitudes of Elementary School Students. Hort Technology, 8(4): 579-583.
- Alexander, J. & D. Hendren, (1998). Bexar County Master Gardener Classroom Garden Research Project: Final Report. San Antonio, Texas.
- Waliczek, T.M., Zajicek, J.M. (1999). School Gardening: Improving Environmental Attitudes of Children Through Hands-On Learning. Journal of Environ. Hort. 17(4): 180-184.
- Klemmer, C.D., Waliczek, T.M. & Zajicek, J.M. (2005). Growing Minds: The Effect of a School Gardening Program on the Science Achievement of Elementary Students. HortTechnology. 15(3): 448-452.
- Van den Berg, A., Warren, J.L., McIntosh, A., Hoelscher, D., Ory, M.G., Jovanovic, C., Lopez, M., Whittlesey, L., Kirk, A., Walton, C., McKyer, L., and Ranjit, N. (2020). The Texas, Grow! Eat! Go! Study: Assessing Independent and Combined Impact of School-Based Garden and Physical Activity Interventions Targeting Ethnically Diverse Low-Income Students. Childhood Obesity. 16(S1): S44-S52.