NGA Articles: School Gardens Measure Up

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.

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