School gardens have been taking off across the United States for over 100 years. The first school garden documented by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was the George Putnum School garden in Roxbury Massachusetts in 1891. The school garden movement reached its peak in the years following the first World War as gardens turned into victory gardens to support the war effort. School gardens have increased in popularity in more recent years notably in response to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Farm to School Program, the USDA’s People’s Garden at the White House, as well as Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. School gardens provide an avenue for experiential learning for students in a wide variety of subjects and allow students who may have limited access to green space the chance to engage with the environment and food in ways they may otherwise be unable to.
School gardens offer a great opportunity to introduce students to healthy foods and also give students a framework to think about where their food comes from. Students across the United States generally only receive 34 hours of nutrition education a year, and much of this education centers around a government-issued chart that dictates what their meals should consist of. This educational strategy does not allow students to engage with the foods that they should be eating, and especially for low-income students or students living in a food desert, this approach is merely throwing foreign concepts of nutrition at them without giving them the tools to expand their nutritional habits. Hands-on gardening experience, on the other hand, is a much more effective method of increasing students’ intake of fruits and vegetables. A 2017 evaluation conducted by the Tisch Center for Food and Educational Policy at Teacher’s College in Columbia University found that “in schools that provide frequent, high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning, students eat up to three times more fruits and vegetables at school lunch — regardless of whether or not that food was grown in the garden.” This type of hands-on nutrition learning can be perfectly executed in a garden as students learn about the importance of receiving the proper nutrients for themselves as well as the plants that they cultivate.
School gardens act as a blank canvas that school districts can add their own style, goals, and preferences too. For example, school gardens are not limited to growing food, but could also include native plants or plants that invite pollinators to begin conversations about Earth Science and also subjects like indigenous history, climate change, and environmental stewardship. In fact, integrating school gardens into other classes is recommended by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in order to sustain the project in the long run, and to encourage greater implementation of experiential learning. Incorporating other classes into garden usage will provide a greater incentive to schools that may have limited outdoor space to pursue this hands-on learning experience.
Montgomery County Public Schools has already begun to incorporate this learning strategy into their curriculum. Schools in the county have invested in butterfly and pollinator gardens as well as container gardens in order to give their students this hands-on approach to learning. The Montgomery County Outdoor Environmental Education program also gives instructions to schools in the county on how to incorporate a garden into their school on whatever scale works best with their given facilities. The Outdoor Environmental Education program has been a great resource for schools in the area, providing both day trip opportunities for students to engage with the environment through a school outing as well as a three day two-night outdoor environmental education program for 6th graders. The outdoor investigations that students complete during their trips offer a similar hands-on learning style that a school garden provides for students to actively explore and learn about their local environment.
School gardens foster an environment of exploration and encourage students to be open and try new things. Gardens offer a way for students to form a connection to the plants they cultivate and with that a greater excitement around healthy eating habits and environmental stewardship.