There’s a well-known adage that says you learn everything you really need to know about life in elementary school. In many respects that’s true—we learn basic language and arithmetic, to be respectful of others, self-control, organization, team work, social skills, and other fundamental lessons that we carry throughout life. Researchers are now suggesting that schools should add another area of study to their core curricula: gardening.
The Benefits of Teaching Children to Garden
Any activity in which we engage involves learning. For children, the educational value of gardening fosters positive lifelong skills and values: (1)
- Responsibility – caring for another living thing requires thought and attention with consequences and results you can see
- Understanding – all living things share some basic requirements, such as water, food, rest, and interacting with other living things
- Self-confidence – the satisfaction of being able to reap the benefits of their efforts and achieving set goals
- Love of nature – opportunities to learn about and appreciate the larger outdoor environment from a safe place
- Reasoning, exploration, and discovery – the science of plants, animals, and weather along with the arts of planning and simple construction
- Physical activity – spending time outdoors or in a greenhouse digging, watering, weeding, pruning, staking, harvesting, etc. can be lots of fun and is associated with being productive and achieving something tangible—and it’s okay to get dirty!
- Cooperation – sharing activities/responsibilities and teamwork with a common goal
- Creativity – exploring new and exciting ways to grow food
- Nutrition – learning about how fresh food is grown, the nutrients in different plants, and how eating plants contributes to human health.
In addition to these, students actively engaged in maintaining a school garden have been found to attain better grades in school, especially in math and science. (2) Teachers at schools with student gardens have observed:
- a willingness to embrace different learning styles
- improved reading skills – gardening has its own jargon, including plants’ Latin names
- new perspectives on Nature that take shape in various art forms
- broadening of agricultural and ecological literacy
- reduction in student stress, anxiety, and depression
- a general increase in curiosity and critical thinking. (3, 4)
Direct, hands-on experience bolsters and expands classroom learning! (5)
If you’ve ever planted anything, you know how satisfying it can feel to nurture a plant’s growth to maturity, enjoying the process and the rewards it brings. Maintaining an outdoor home garden and/or housing indoor plants is for some people an essential part of living. Why wouldn’t we want to share that joy with our children?
Growing plants for food has been found to affect children’s “food empathy”, fostering a deeper and long-lasting relationship with the food they eat. This has an impact on their food choices and the understanding of how nutrition affects health:
“…the role of empathy in food literacy…is part of a larger paradigm which intends not only to educate people about healthy eating, but providing both critical and functional knowledge regarding food-related decisions.” (6)
In fact, this empathy influences children to make healthier and broader food choices that include more vegetables and fruits. (7) With the incidence of worldwide childhood obesity at an all-time high and increasing, this is very good news for children and the adults into which they’ll develop. Everything tastes better if you grow it yourself!
Our children’s lack of a relationship with Nature is troublesome.
Populations all over the world have been migrating toward large metropolitan areas, moving away from more rural and historically agricultural lifestyles; urban gardens are gaining popularity to fill the need of would-be gardeners whose access to a patch of land is limited. Moreover, societies in the developed world have become increasingly separated from Nature overall and the distance grows with each generation.
Consider this: average North American kids spend minutes per day outdoors but hours per day indoors in front of luminous screens—to their detriment. (8) If that’s not enough to put things into a frightening perspective, let’s look at some basic pragmatism. Children who spend regular time outdoors:
- get enough vitamin D
- learn to take risks, meet challenges, and accept responsibility
- are less anxious and fatigued (9)
- socialize face-to-face in the real—not virtual—world, building “soft skills” and meaningful relationships (10)
- learn to appreciate their surroundings
- are less likely to experience the effects of a sedentary lifestyle (11)
- develop imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills (12)
Additionally and critically, in many parts of the world—including North America—people are routinely uncertain of their ability to feed themselves and their families. Studies of school and community gardens in different parts of the world have all been shown to improve food security for families and communities. (13, 14, 15)
“Food deserts are an increasingly recognized problem in the United States, but a new study…indicates urban and home gardens—combined with nutrition education—could be a path toward correcting that disadvantage.” (16)
We want our children to be knowledgeable and prepared to provide themselves with the basic necessities of life, to become self-sufficient and productive contributors to their communities.
Take it from a food expert
Raymond Blanc is a French chef who learned at a young age how to tend a family garden, leading to a love of food and a career in its thoughtful and careful preparation. From an interview with the Independent, Chef Blanc summarizes the importance of teaching children to cultivate a garden:
“We have a wonderful opportunity to truly reconnect with food. We need to engage with the outside world, with our gardens and the life within them. Children need to learn the simple magic of taking food from the seed, from the earth or from the rivers and then to transform it into something simple and delicious…We have a multi-billion dollar problem with heart disease, diabetes, and obesity because of intensive farming and heavily processed food…We are the generation who truly messed it up by creating so many problems for our kids by reducing food to a mere commodity.” (17)
Chef Blanc has produced an animated cooking software application for children called “Henri Le Worm” to encourage children to explore the life of plants and reconnect with Nature.