Skip to content

How Does Your Garden Grow?  Researchers say outdoor gardens get kids moving 

Laura E. Saponara serves as a Senior Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.

Spring is in the air and it’s a wonderful time to get outdoors, till the soil and do some gardening. School gardens are a wonderful space to educate young people how to grow their own food and the importance of making healthy food choices. They can also be places where students get to flex their muscles and get some exercise during the school day. With April being “National Gardening Month,” we’d like to re-share this gem about school gardens and physical activity to get you inspired.

Thousands of school gardens now exist across the country and new research is shedding light on the role that gardens can play in spurring physical activity as well expanding students’ knowledge of fresh healthy foods and their nutrients.

School gardens come in all shapes and sizes, require a fair amount of enthusiasm and muscle to sustain, and can be used to feed curiosity across a fertile range of subject areas, from biology, math, and nutrition to environmental sciences, global conflict and poetry.

The popularity of school gardens, particularly in urban areas, is a relatively new phenomenon, propelled in part by expanding awareness of the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes among young people and the growing determination among adults to reverse these trends. While enthusiasm for school gardens as hands-on learning labs has blossomed, the pool of formal research on the benefits to students, and the perceptions of those benefits among school leaders, is relatively small.

In a 2005 California study cited by health researcher Emily Ozer, Ph.D., in which 4,184 public school principals responded to a survey, 89% viewed academic enhancement, especially in relation to science and nutrition, as the main purpose of the garden in their school. That’s apt, given other studies that show school gardens can successfully increase students’ nutrition knowledge and enhance the likelihood that students will choose to consume more fruits and vegetables.

Now there’s evidence that school gardens can be sources of good exercise too. In a study of elementary schools with school gardens in New York state,* researchers found that in 60-minute outdoor garden-based lessons, children did a significant amount of standing, walking and kneeling.  By contrast, children who participated in 60-minute indoor garden-based classroom lessons spent the vast majority of the time sitting.

While it seems simple, the conclusion is significant: by delivering more curricula outdoors, teachers can “increase physical activity and a range of postures.”

And when it comes to helping students get the recommended 60 minutes of quality physical activity each day, bolstering the amount and range of motion they get counts.  Because as physical activity trainers and PE geeks know well, everything counts.

460549373Resources to help schools establish and tend gardens are abundant online. The Let’s Move website devotes a page to help schools get going. It includes a one-page PDF checklist and tips to help you evaluate your available space, check soil health, gather design concepts from others in your school community, among other steps.

Curricular inspiration in the form of 62 lessons for middle school students, aligned to the Common Core State Standards and created by the Edible School Yard in Berkeley, are also available. You can learn more about ESY’s efforts to blend school gardens with academic enrichment as well as their work to train educators in spreading school garden learning on this blog.

For younger children, a group of educators in Texas offer a list of ideas for engaging in “science that grows on you,” as well as a nice long list of books for teachers.

The New York state study was undertaken with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture People’s Garden pilot program, Cornell University and many others. 

Back To Top