School children no longer have to stare out a classroom window to catch a glimpse of Mother Nature; instead they spend part of their educational time in the great outdoors. The Healthy Schools Project, a California initiative aimed at providing hands-on learning experiences, is behind the trend at Sunset Elementary School in Oak View. Students care for the school’s garden and orchard, harvest fruit and vegetables and make compost, among other things.
While California leads the nation in school gardening, with about 30 percent of that state’s schools offering the opportunity to garden, other states are doing the same, says Rose Hayden-Smith, the chairperson of the University of California Garden-Based Learning Workgroup.
“This is a national phenomenon,” Hayden-Smith says. “If you look at the history of school gardening programs, there have been periods when it’s been very prominent and then less prominent, but we have seen a lot of interest since the early 1990s.”
She reported on the movement during Gardens for All in Des Moines, Iowa. The conference’s aim was to explore the means of bringing gardening and its benefits to the attention of policy makers.
Lessons learned in the garden carry over into the classroom, says Janet Brown, program officer for food systems at the Center of Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. Students build skills in math, biology, nutrition, culture and cuisines when they garden.
“The instructional garden is a living laboratory where insights abound and where students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom,” Brown says.
Studies at Texas A&M University found students involved in gardening programs were more enthusiastic about learning and more likely to become involved in their community.
“One Virginia Tech study surveyed teachers who garden in the classroom. Seventy-five percent of these teachers reported that student behavior ‘often’ or ‘always’ improved when a garden was in the learning environment,” says Kurt Friese, a professional chef and the Midwest regional governor for Slow Food USA, an organization focused on the use of locally produced food.
According to the National Gardening Association, the number of school gardens is increasing. One reason may be the Local Wellness Policy, mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The policy requires schools to provide means of promoting healthier lifestyles for their students.