Maryland Coastal Bays

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The Benefits of Educational Gardens - April 23, 2017

Currently, there is a major disconnect in the United States from how food gets from the field to a plate. People have shifted away from growing their own food or shopping at local farmers markets, to shopping almost entirely at supermarkets. In fact, the continuous growth of supermarkets and mass merchandisers has over 75% of Americans purchasing their produce and meat there. When people shop strictly at those locations, the labor and energy that goes into planting, growing, harvesting, and the raising of animals, can be easily forgotten. Fortunately, with increases in environmental education, there are more opportunities for our nation’s youth to learn where food comes from and how it is grown. Specifically, in the last twenty years, a resurgence of interest in educational gardens has led to their development in schools and has provided a means for youth to reconnect with the earth and make positive, lifelong behavioral changes.

School gardens first became a national movement during World War I when the United States School Garden Army was created as part of domestic war-preparedness efforts to combat hunger. Their practical and educational use declined after the war, and although the concept briefly returned during World War II with the growing of Victory Gardens, it eventually faded again in 1944 as schools became more focused on technology. Revitalization of the education gardening movement was attempted in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the creation of organizations such as the American Community Garden Association and governmental grants through programs such as the Comprehensive Education and Training Act that funded community gardens. Unfortunately, due to lack of governmental and local support, many of these programs fell through. A renewal of popularity of educational gardens began in 1990 with the increase of community and school gardens in urban and suburban areas. Gardens no longer focused on specific needs, such as the war effort, but instead emphasized continuous community involvement and sustainability. This new movement was diverse in location, participation, and purpose, giving more children access to the educational benefits provided by garden-based learning.

Current research suggests that garden-based learning, in which an educational garden is utilized as a resource for teaching, can have many positive impacts on students both in and out of the classroom. Students who play and learn in green spaces have more creativity, engage in more physical activity, and display fewer symptoms of behavioral conduct disorders than those who spend all of their time in traditional classrooms. Young students who play in gardens with natural elements such as rocks, trees, and streams have also been shown to form their social hierarchies based on language skills, creativity, and inventiveness, as opposed to the strength-based hierarchy of students playing on unnatural hard structures, such as jungle gyms. When students are exposed to positive moral development out-of-doors, they will bring those positive impacts back into the classroom.

Educational gardens also address the ever-growing concern of child obesity. Among the main contributors to the obesity epidemic are poor eating habits and insufficient physical activity. Gardens are prime sites for interventions to promote activities that can create a healthy body mass index and reduce the risk of childhood obesity. Additionally, educational gardens can be beneficial in enhancing children’s willingness to taste vegetables, knowledge of nutritional eating, and preference for fruits and vegetables. Studies indicate that children ages six through twelve eat an average of 2.13 fruits and vegetables a day; less than half of the recommended daily serving. Exposing children to more fruits and vegetables and providing them hands-on interactions through the care of foods may increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.

Educational gardens are also beneficial and practical for student learning due to the variety of materials and lessons that can be taught while using them. An educational garden can serve as a resource for teaching a variety of science-based subjects ranging from soil and nutrient cycles to weather and atmosphere, and also provides students with the opportunity to care for living organisms. Allowing the students to interact with and learn about the plants they are caring for from start to finish provides a sense of reward when the students achieve the final product of their work. Additionally, allowing students the opportunity to maintain and care for the garden can be a useful tool in teaching environmental stewardship. However, it is not just science-based subjects that can be taught in the garden. The garden could be used for writing and poetry lessons, art classes, and creative history activities revolving around farming and historic gardens. Educational gardens also provide an opportunity to engage all four primary learning types; visual, auditory, read-write, and kinesthetic.

Gardens not only provide a foundation for education and hands-on learning, but they offer opportunities to create more sustainable communities. There is invaluable importance in creating environments where people can construct their own knowledge. If given the opportunity to learn freely, such as in a community garden, people will connect more with others and the world around them. The physical and mental knowledge that can be acquired from the building of, planting in, and eating from gardens can help produce healthier, more connected community members in the future.

It is important to get ourselves outside, get our hands dirty, and continue to learn about the world around us. And thanks to educational gardens, there has been a reconnection of the field to plate mentality and students, and adults alike, are inspired to eat healthier, purchase local, and become more environmentally responsible.

Vander Clute is the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 



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