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date: 20 September 2018

Garden-Based Education

Summary and Keywords

Garden-based education is a philosophical orientation to teaching and learning that uses gardens as the milieu for student engagement through meaningful and relevant curricular and instructional integration in schools. In addition to their direct academic appeal in raising test scores and grades, particularly in science, language arts, and math, gardens on educational campuses, spanning pre-school through high school, are also utilized by educators for a variety of other outcomes. These include motivational engagement; social, moral, and emotional development; strengthening of institutional and community bonds; vocational skills development; food literacy; healthy eating habits; and holistic growth of children and youth. Moreover, garden-based education shows promise as a tangible and pragmatic solution to address problems of disaffection and disengagement among youth that has resulted in a school dropout crisis in many places. While specific to higher education, farm-based education and agriculture-based education that focus on growing food have parallel agendas. The vast array of outcomes linked with garden-based education may seem impressive. However, systematic research studies of garden-based education across sites to measure educational impact are missing, largely due to their marginalized status and the decentralized and localized nature of program implementation and professional training.

While the idea of including gardens on educational campuses to grow food or to serve as a means of outdoor and nature education is not new, since the 1990s, there has been a surge of interest in using garden-based education across countries and continents. With its accessibility on school grounds, garden-based education intersects with parallel movements such as outdoor education, place-based education, experiential education, nature-based education, environmental education, and sustainability education. Manifested in a variety of grassroots practices that include slow food, community supported agriculture, edible schoolyards, global roots, indigenous cultural gardens, learning gardens, lifelab, living classrooms, multicultural school gardens, urban harvest, and more, gardens will likely continue to be of significance in education as there are growing uncertainties globally about food security and health matters related to climate change. Despite high stakes, standardized tests, and accountability measures that pose challenges to educators and proponents of school gardens in public schools, research shows their promise as laboratories for innovation and academic learning. Garden-based education would benefit if informed by longitudinal and large-scale research studies that demonstrate instructional and curricular rigor and integration and impact on learning outcomes. Drawing on critical and posthumanist theories that question the nature of schooling, and explicitly addressing issues of race, class, and perspectives of marginalized and indigenous scholars and practitioners would bring further credence. Practice-embedded research and co-production of knowledge that accepts complexity and conjunctive thinking, while also addressing culturally responsive pedagogy across socio-economic status, would enhance the viability of this growing movement.

Keywords: garden-based education, academic outcomes, science learning, nature-based education, climate change, food literacy, learning gardens, green schoolyard, environmental education, school gardens

Garden-based education is a philosophical orientation to teaching and learning that uses gardens as the milieu for student engagement through meaningful and relevant curricular and instructional integration in schools (Desmond, Greishop, & Subramaniam, 2004; Williams & Brown, 2012). Inclusion of gardens as part of outdoor learning and teaching in educational institutions, while not new, has been gaining increased attention since the 1990s. There is a growing movement for the greening of school campuses through gardens and much enthusiasm for the potential of garden-based education in connecting students with nature, promoting academic learning, and supporting all-round development and an environmental ethic among children and youth (Blair, 2009; Ozer, 2006; Waliczek & Zajicek, 2016; Williams & Dixon, 2013). Given the confluence of ecological and social crises that have characterized the start of the 21st century, gardens are seen as a viable venue to provide alternatives to modern education disconnected from nature and the environment and divorced from place-based lived experience. Critical theorists and posthumanists question the very nature of market-driven education with its homogenized and commodified curriculum and instruction, decontextualized knowledge, large-scale top-down initiatives, and honoring of the autonomous individual at the expense of community interconnectedness (Gruenwald & Smith, 2008; Williams & Brown, 2012). The benefits of gardens as natural environments for human health and well being and for supporting healthy eating habits are also a motivating force (Pollan, 1991; Waters & Duane, 2008). Climate change discourse has particularly reinforced the significance of garden-based education as concern for food security is on the rise.

The resurgence of interest in garden-based education has resulted in revitalization and establishment of thousands of school gardens in rural and urban districts across countries and continents. Various models and programs of garden-based education have emerged, along with garden curricula in schools and districts, many supported by state education, agriculture departments, and not-for-profit organizations. These curricula are aligned with grade level standards, particularly in subjects such as science, but also in mathematics, language arts, and literature. Likewise, nutrition and health education are drivers of the momentum to teach children and youth to grow food, to eat healthy, and to be out-of-doors with and in nature. Increasingly, attention is also focused on garden-based pedagogy to enhance students’ motivational engagement and vocational skills. Whereas specific to higher education, farm-based education and agriculture-based education that focus on growing food have parallel agendas. Permaculture, as a regenerative philosophy, uses ecological design mimicking patterns and relationships observed in nature; it serves as an alternative to the dominant, inflexible orientation to modern education. Launched across a variety of landscapes and terrains, permaculture emerged as a worldwide movement in the 1970s (Mollison & Holmgrem, 1978) and is utilized to nurture the overall health of a place including its soil (Hemenway, 2000). It is embraced by both urban and rural communities for designing school gardens across cultures.

Interdisciplinary interest and the viability of gardens as living laboratories for teaching are evident in the broad array of peer-reviewed journals that have published topics related to garden-based education, ranging from academic outcomes in science and mathematics, to children’s geographies, environmental psychology, history, anthropology, and public heath nutrition, among others. Increased unease about children’s lack of connection to food has further intensified the commitment. The diffused nature of the work itself can be a double-edged sword: although multiple rationales, purposes, and outcomes enrich the spread of garden-based education meeting diverse learning styles, by the same token it becomes dissipated with no clear sense of its collective outcomes. As a result, although school gardens and garden-based education are justified for many of their benefits, missing are the large-scale systematic and longitudinal studies spanning campuses and programs that can collectively determine their effectiveness, especially to influence policy-makers for investment. The latter are most vulnerable to public pressure for accountability in student academic performance demonstrated through standardized tests. Uncertainties related to funding and the lack of training of teachers, school administrators, and grounds-maintenance personnel, can become a hindrance. Furthermore, unexplored in mainstream research literature are the voices of indigenous populations, even as there is growing interest in acknowledging the teachings and offerings of indigenous communities, especially indigenous epistemologies based in interconnectedness and interrelationships (Lowan-Trudeau, 2013, p. 404). These perspectives honor nature integrated with self and community and growing of food as a means to be engaged with place and body (Cajete, 1994). Research that includes agrarian cultures that are impacted by mobility and diaspora, yet bring their lived experiences to school gardens, is equally limited both in environmental education as well as garden-based education. An emergent trend linked with the Anthropocene epoch also questions the lack of agency for children and youth in garden and environmental education programs, as they are expected to follow adult agendas (Dyment, 2005; Malone & Hartung, 2010; Wake & Birdsall, 2016). Recent innovative research that discusses the ambiguities and tensions of living in the Anthropocene era and problematizes both modern education and environmental education, provides insights into “ChildhoodNature” by theorizing that children (humans) are nature and hence are inseparable from nature (Cutter-Mackenzie, Malone, Barratt-Hacking, in press). These perspectives, explicitly connected with school gardens research, would enrich the field.

Historical Context and Philosophical Foundations

While school gardens may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, they have historically been popular in the United States since the 19th century, and in Europe for several hundred years before that (Desmond et al., 2004; Hayden-Smith, 2006). Mandatory school gardens were proposed in Prussia in the early 19th century and later became the law (Subramaniam, 2002, p. 2). In the first half of the 19th century, several German states introduced gardening in rural schools and later in city schools; the movement had spread to other European countries by the end of the century (True, 1929, p. 385). By 1918, every state in America and every province in Canada had at least one school garden (Kohlstedt, 2008, p. 82). The first known school garden in the United States was established in 1891 at Boston’s Putnam School under the sponsorship of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (Greene, 1910).

During the progressive education era, especially between 1890 and 1910, gardens provided natural context for experiential and practical learning, teaching children countless lessons about life and values (Kohlstedt, 2008). Widely recognized as a prominent advocate for experiential education, John Dewey (1859–1952) promoted reflective learning by doing, and he challenged the conventional structures of educational institutions that were more about facts and memorization and served a select few. Dewey (1916) democratized education for all as he expanded and made permeable the boundaries of classroom walls. By embracing permeability, he encouraged educators to link the intellectual with the practical beyond the structures of the school (Kohlstedt, 2008, p. 58). Gardens on school grounds thrived in terms of food production but also as important educational milieus; their immediate pedagogical viability was more of an interest to Dewey than their promise for preparation of future gardeners or farmers. School gardens during this time period flourished as the study and appreciation of nature were embraced. However, these school gardens were “malleable projects,” since they were dependent on the skills and dedication of teachers, students, and participating communities, and the resources available to them (Kohlstedt, 2008, p. 60). Kohlstedt’s conclusions are insightful as they hold true even a century later: the variability of school gardens can be seen both as a weakness and a strength, as garden-based education lacks consistency across programs and locale, yet simultaneously maintains flexibility in meeting place-based needs of the community and school personnel.

School gardens preceded Dewey as practical embodiments of nature, promoting freedom from the constraints of indoor and book-based education, as philosophers Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel embraced out-of-doors education, which they felt was essential to the growth of a child (Hayden-Smith, 2006; Subramaniam, 2002; Ulrich, 1947). John Comenius (1592–1670) believed that, through the ponderings of nature and her beauty, children would gain knowledge of the self and world. With the presence of gardens, he felt that children would have ample opportunity to admire and appreciate nature. A century later, the influential philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) ascribed that the natural world should serve as a foundation for the child’s learning. Rejecting the absolutist and clerical controls over human life and acknowledging the importance of sensory experiences in learning, Rousseau considered nature as a venue in which the human spirit could experience a sense of freedom. His teachings were adopted by Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827), who believed in active learning that permitted children’s growth based on what was familiar and of interest to them. Pestalozzi used gardening, farming, and home skills as forms of practical education in teaching. Head, hand, and heart were all essential for balance in education. The goal of education was not to impart knowledge, but to reveal the natural faculties latent and hidden in every human being. That is, educators needed to focus on the child as human being and not on preconceived curriculum per se. Since education was about unfolding the hidden knowledge in a child, he advocated direct experience as the best method of teaching. Gardens, fields, and woods were critical to providing a natural medium for this unfolding; geography, natural science, art, and music enabled natural forms of engagement.

Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), who studied Pestalozzi’s fundamental principles of education, went a step further to emphasize observations in a way that the creative energies of the child were acknowledged and brought forth. Froebel was one of the most active proponents of school gardens in the 19th century, having invented the kindergarten (children’s garden), which was designed to be the extension of a thriving garden (Ulrich, 1947). By living in harmony with nature, the creative essence and inner potential of human beings would emerge, he believed. Educational environments that supported play and creativity and embraced nature were to be valued. Maria Montessori (1870–1952), whose educational theory is mostly practiced in elementary schools, embraced education of the senses prior to the education of the intellect, along the same lines as Frobel and Pestalozzi (Subramaniam, 2002). In the presence of a garden, while tending and caring for plants, the child’s moral development would be enhanced (Montessori, 1969). While not broadly practiced or implemented, Montessori’s farm-based education model for adolescents, termed Erdkinder (earth children or children of the soil), is a land-based program that includes a boarding component (Barker, 2001). Akin to Montessori elementary schools, there is growing interest in Erdkinder as a successful approach toward place-based adolescent education (Kahn & Ewert-Krocker, 2000).

At the turn of the 20th century, school gardens, which were common in rural and the developing urban areas, gained substantial prominence in several European countries and in North America. According to historian Kohlstedt (2008), endorsed by national gardening and agricultural organizations and supported by federal funding, in the United States they numbered in the hundreds of thousands nationwide. School gardens became most dramatically visible with the creation of the United States School Garden Army, as part of World War I domestic war preparedness efforts, with the motto: A garden for every child. A child in every garden (Kohlstedt, 2008, p. 87). They were used as a means to promote good citizenship, hard work, discipline, and patriotism. For President Woodrow Wilson, the school garden movement with children working in them was “just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or firing of the canons” (Kohlstedt, 2008, p. 87). Known as Liberty Gardens and Victory Gardens, the programs were successful in appealing to children and youth, with several million having signed up as “soldiers of the soil.” They were supported by over 50,000 teachers who received curriculum, and thousands of community volunteers who assisted with youth gardening projects (Hayden-Smith, 2006, p. 9). Having fulfilled their main mission, national impetus for these garden initiatives subsided during the 1920s, although local school gardens continued to persist well into the 1930s and regained some momentum during World War II with Victory Gardens (Hayden-Smith, 2014). The “Food for Freedom” campaign became part of the collective memory of the nation, as 40% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States during World War II were raised in Victory Gardens (Hayden-Smith, 2006, p. 12). Their revival was brief as they declined after the war.

In post-World War years, with the advancement of science, greater numbers of city school children began to germinate bean seeds as experiments in the classroom rather than plant them on school grounds for food. Further, with mass production and industrialization of food, large lawns as symbols of affluence and high culture replaced gardens. Gardens, which had enjoyed strong ties to community and families and were integrated across school curriculum, were no longer valued or seen as a necessity. Moreover, with the launch of the Sputnik in 1957 and the space race that followed, the educational spotlight shifted. Science and technology were increasingly embraced by schools as the public gaze shifted to stars and space exploration. Contact with soil and food source was not as exotic. With installation of science and technology laboratories in schools, and continued urbanization, a broader cultural shift began to impact educational reform as school gardens were forsaken (Subramaniam, 2002). Simultaneously, athletic fields, play structures, and playgrounds lay claims over garden plots on school sites. With the peak of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, school gardens were viewed as potentially one of many interactive educational links for children to understand and associate with life processes and the environment. However, environmental educators believed that rather than close proximity to schools personified by school gardens, field trips and outdoor education “at a distance” from schools were critical and necessary to overcome the physically inactive lifestyle and the alarming disconnection from nature experienced by youth. Nevertheless, toward the end of the 20th century, gardens were being reestablished in public education.

Resurgence of School Gardens Since the 1990s

Garden-based education has been at the convergence of three over-lapping strands of public interests since the 1990s. First, there is heightened concern over food- and health-related matters. The disturbing trends of food insecurity, inconsistent access to food, and health issues especially affecting low-income populations, are interlinked with issues of social justice and food economy (Lang & Heasman, 2015). Pandemics such as swine flu, waves of salmonella, and E. Coli outbreaks, for instance, are also cause for alarm. Climate change is creating uncertainty and rendering many regions across the globe vulnerable from the perspectives of food production and distribution. Inadequate financial and other resources have led to inconsistency in food access for a large percentage of population worldwide. People who are food insecure experience poor physical and mental health and face substantial unmet needs for chronic disease prevention for conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. Further, climate-induced disasters are impacting human well-being in ever-increasing ways (Rabbitt, Smith, & Coleman-Jensen, 2016). Equally disturbing is the fact that childhood and adolescent obesity rates are at an all-time high (Eisenmann, Gundersen, Lohman, Garasky, & Stewart, 2011; Harrison et al., 2011; Niklas, Yang, Baranowski, Zakeri, & Berenson, 2003; Utter, Denny, Teevale, Peiris-John, & Dyson, 2015), and there is an increase in type 2 diabetes, especially affecting non-white youth populations (Hedley, Ogden, Johnson, Carroll, Curtin, & Flegal, 2004; Vivian, Carrel, & Becker, 2011). School gardens and often school kitchens are considered as lively interactive classrooms where gardens, fresh food, and food curricula offer innumerable practical educational links.

Second, there is concern about the contemporary sedentary and indoor life-style and disconnection from nature increasingly affecting children and youth. Last Child in the Woods: Nature Deficit Disorder (Louv, 2008) mobilized the formation of a large international Children and Nature Network as an urgent response highlighting the need for intentional outdoor exposure and spaces for children to play and experience nature. Innumerable studies show that, as nature becomes distant to children, especially to city dwellers, they lack an understanding about life systems including where their food comes from. Students can identify dozens of commercial logos and characters of trading cards far better than they can species of flowers or trees in the schoolyard or neighborhood. Forest kindergartens and preschools are becoming popular across countries (Sobel, 2014), and outdoor classrooms, schools, and camps are championed (Waite, 2017). Further, in the United States, the No Child Left Inside coalition promised to introduce children to the wonders of nature for their own health and well-being. To combat the inactivity and disengagement from real life and nature, other advocates argue that school gardens and garden-based learning are convenient opportunities for educators who can access and provide outdoor learning and food growing experiences on school campuses on a regular basis, unlike once-a-year field trips and outdoor camps (Moore, 1995; Pollan, 1991, 2008; Waters & Duane, 2008; Williams & Anderson, 2015).

Third, youth disengagement from school and their lack of motivation are also on the rise, resulting in chronic dropout issues (De Witte & Cabus, 2013). The Self-Determination Theory motivational model holds that schools can either support or undermine children’s fundamental psychological needs, which include the need for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Garden-based programs on school grounds that teachers and students can access offer real-life integrated experiential learning activities that serve as intrinsically motivating and have the potential to meet fundamental needs of children and youth, thereby fostering engagement (Skinner, Chu, & the Learning-Gardens Educational Assessment Group Team, 2012). Thus, given the three strands of concerns enumerated, the sprouting and strengthening of school gardens over 25 years is a viable sign of recent possibilities and solutions.

Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Outcomes

The vast array of designs and models of garden-based education reflect the particularities of locale, community, climate, growing seasons, and resources available, along with partnerships that are forged and have helped shape decentralized approaches to implementation. There is a plurality and diversity of curricula, structures, and pedagogical models for garden-based learning (Broda, 2007; Bucklin-Sporer & Pringle, 2010; Cutter-Mackenzie, 2009; Hirschi, 2015; Mayer-Smith, Bartosh, & Peterat, 2009; Stone, 2009; Waters & Duane, 2008; Williams & Brown, 2012). Seldom do teachers manage garden-based education by themselves. Instead, they usually partner with trained garden educators, docents, or parents to teach outside the classroom and in the garden by integrating the curriculum. However, since school garden programs are often developed as a pragmatic response to multiple needs specific to communities and schools, they also vary in scope, frequency, and participation rates of children and youth across schools in a district, and even within a single school, posing challenges for development of curriculum frameworks and content integration, systematic processes of implementation, and documentation and research on outcomes. Accountability measures with high stakes testing often prevent schools that have large numbers of low-income students belonging to ethnic and racial minority groups from experimenting with innovation that requires flexibility; garden-based education thus appears to be adopted by middle-class white communities, especially those who have embraced healthy food and green values. Professional development in this area is a relatively new phenomenon (Kelley & Williams, 2013; Ray, Ming Wei, & Barrett, 2013). Further, as with environmental education, garden-based education is marginalized from mainstream education; hence, few models are sustained long-term, posing increased challenges for research on its value and outcomes. Most significantly, explicit theorizing has been missing from its mission.

Curriculum: Plurality and Diversity

There are thousands of school gardens across countries, the majority at the elementary level. They are initiated and established with formal garden-based curricula designed and implemented using a plurality of models as reflected in a sample of programs in Australia, Canada, Kenya, South Africa, United Kingdom, and United States of America such as: Edible Schoolyards, Ethnobotanical Gardens, Gardens for Life, Global Roots, Green Schoolyards with Food Gardens, Intergenerational Environmental Education, Learning Gardens, Learning Landscapes, Living Classrooms, Multicultural School Gardens, Rain Gardens, Royal Horticultural Society Garden Program, Urban Sprouts, and Urban Harvest. Programs are often dependent on fostered partnerships and on the financial and human resources available (Williams, 2015). These partnerships vary in their support: personnel from universities and colleges, state agencies, not-for-profit organizations, schools, and parent-teacher associations work with teachers and administrators at the elementary through high school level to design and link garden learning with curricular standards in subjects such as science, mathematics, language arts, social studies, and the arts. Garden-based and farm-to school networks at state and national levels have emerged, providing impetus and technical support to participants. When possible, the garden serves as a relevant context to link subject standards, and it provides pertinent experiences to develop practical and vocational skills. Akin to environmental education, science as a subject is most often aligned with the garden as the milieu for teaching concepts. Initiatives specifically focusing on food, nutrition, healthy eating, and out-of-doors learning, that develop understanding of food and health and values, are also adopted. The heterogeneous mix of curricula in garden-based education evolves as a pragmatic response to the needs and interests of the school and its community.

Congruence of Pedagogical Theories

The pedagogical principles of experiential education (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984; Smith & Knapp, 2011), environmental education (Stevenson, Brody, Dillon, & Wals, 2013), holistic education (Flake, 2001; Miller, 1993), outdoor education (Potter & Dyment, 2016; Rickinson et al., 2003; Wattchow & Brown, 2011), and place-based education (Gruenwald & Smith, 2008; Smith & Sobel, 2010; Williams & Brown, 2012) provide strong convergence and insights into garden-based education, even though research on garden-based education seldom explicitly draws upon or elaborates on educational theories. Gardens provide rich contextual and place-specific venues for enabling holistic development of students, where their intellectual, social, emotional, and moral engagement is supported in meaningful ways. As they plan their garden beds, sow seeds and seedlings, attend to them, observe, conduct experiments, record results, and get in touch with all of their senses—instead of the two, the visual and the hearing, that are drawn upon most by traditional education—students are encouraged to make the back-and-forth connection with the content covered in the classroom (Figure 1). Reflection, a key component of experiential learning (Dewey, 1938; Schon, 1983), is also part of the learning process in gardens. A crucial aspect of garden-based education is how it informs and interacts with the local. Biological sciences are a rather smooth match; food, soil, weather patterns, and water table are interconnected with other disciplines (Bucklin-Sporer & Pringle, 2010; Hirschi, 2015; Smith & Sobel, 2010; Waters & Duane, 2008; Williams & Brown, 2012). Embrace of outdoor education and environmental education enables focus on dynamic and evolving relationships calling on the multifaceted potential of children and youth who learn in the garden through integrated, interdisciplinary approaches, often through hands-on, investigative, active, direct, and real-world engagement (Figure 2).

Garden-Based EducationClick to view larger

Figure 1. Children actively engaged in their school garden.

Garden-Based EducationClick to view larger

Figure 2. Investigative learning in the school garden.

Seven pedagogical principles for learning gardens are developed and theorized by Williams and Brown (2012). The first principle is about cultivating a sense of place. In contrast to the de-contextualized nature of education emphasized by economic globalization, school gardens are necessarily embedded in local social, cultural, and ecological communities. Gardens and garden-based learning can therefore be designed to focus attention on the unique local aspects of global phenomena. The rather abstract and de-contextualized learning of various subjects occurring in schools can be grounded in place, highlighting the relevance of education to the places where people actually live (Smith & Sobel, 2010).

The second principle is fostering curiosity and wonder. Direct experiences of nature in the school gardens require a multifaceted awakening of children’s latent urge to ask questions and to wonder. Fostering wonder to the endless beauty and mystery of life is wholesome and necessary, according to Carson (1956). Essayist Neil Postman (1994) has critiqued traditional education that crushes children’s curiosity, noting that children often enter schools as a question mark and leave as a period. The adoption of secret garden spots is a specific pedagogical technique modeled by experiential educator Jon Young (2001) that helps students to get quiet with themselves and observe nature within the bounds of the bustle of school life. Gardens provide safe spaces for repose, along with reflective and exploratory time, all of which are important given the diminishment of opportunities for young people to access undisturbed natural areas, as has been described by Richard Louv (2008). Play and learning alike are “unplugged” in the garden context, and thereby contrast the dominant norms of modern childhood. Together these learning outcomes are critical, as wonder, curiosity, imagination, and play are becoming endangered experiences of childhood.

Third, discovering rhythm and scale is a principle wherein students develop multifaceted understandings that can help to re-calibrate a sense of time and space. The slow pace of life in the garden contrasts with the modern social norms of speed and instant gratification provided by video games and highly competitive sports. Using the concepts of kairotic time rather than chronic time, learning in the gardens supports a different and natural rhythm of time. The fourth principle is valuing biocultural diversity. This pedagogical principle expands the discourse on diversity to include the intersections of ecology and culture. Given the demographic trends in urban schools toward increasing cultural diversity, school gardens become inviting places where cultural traditions may be honored in relation to culinary and agrarian arts. Food is intimately connected to land and culture.

Fifth, embracing practical experience, builds on the well-developed and theorized field of experiential education. Gardens teach students about life through the experience of engagement (Gaylie, 2009). For example, children and youth take responsibility for food waste commonly sent to landfills and are able to create the gift of compost to regenerate soil that can support school grounds that are often nutrient deficient as a result of long neglect. The sixth pedagogical principle, nurturing interconnectedness, engages students in exploring patterns in nature and the concept of interdependence in nested systems (Capra, 1996; Williams, 2008). Innumerable curricular and practical opportunities are offered by a garden. Finally, awakening the senses, the seventh principle, invites students and adults to engage their whole bodies in learning, and to become, in the words of David Abram (1996), “ever more present to the sensorial moment.” Embodied learning is one of the gifts that garden educators have valued, calling into play multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2011) and ways that all of the senses are activated for learning (Gaylie, 2011; Masumoto, 2003; Williams & Brown, 2012). As Orr (1994) explains, learning from and with nature “one might imagine the earth would teach us: silence, humility, holiness, connectedness, courtesy, beauty, celebration, giving, restoration, obligation and wildness” (p. 52). Outdoor learning on the school grounds supports group work and collaborative learning (Dyment, 2005), along with quiet, contemplative, pedagogical moments.

Research Outcomes: Benefits and Challenges

Research on the potential of garden-based education is steadily increasing, spanning a wide range of outcomes including cognitive benefits, with a multitude of peer-reviewed studies published in journals beyond the field of education per se (Blair, 2009; Ozer, 2006; Williams & Dixon, 2013). Multiple rationales, purposes, and outcomes are used to justify school gardens because they relate to a multitude of outcomes: food knowledge, health, and nutritional understandings linked with food; healthy eating habits from growing food; play; and promotion of physical activity. Direct academic outcomes are linked with specific curriculum/subjects such as science, language arts, mathematics, and social studies, among others. Vocational and life skills are enhanced. Furthermore, there are outcomes related to students developing an environmental ethic, stewardship, and empathy as they connect with nature through gardens. Nature exposure also affects attentional functioning in children. Social, emotional, and moral development are fostered. School bonding, formation of community, and more parental and intergenerational relationships are cultivated. Finally, gardens teach patience and attentiveness (Montessori, 1969).

Results from several studies, especially syntheses and meta-analyses published between 1990 and 2017, show a preponderance of positive results emanating from garden-based education. Drawing upon ecological theory, Ozer (2006) synthesized research from five peer-reviewed journals that explored the relationship of school garden programs on students’ physical health and mental health and found positive trends in each area. Blair (2009) reviewed 20 studies related to children’s gardening. She found positive results for science achievement, food and nutrition knowledge, environmental attitude change, and self-esteem and life skills; she also found that gardening enthusiasm among teachers depended on support and their confidence in horticulture. In their review of garden-based nutrition-education programs for youth, Robinson-O’Brien and colleagues (2009), examined the impact of gardens on fruit and/or vegetable intake, willingness to taste fruits and vegetables, preferences for fruits and vegetables, or other nutrition-related outcomes. Eleven studies that were reviewed suggested that garden-based nutrition intervention programs may have the potential to promote increased fruit and vegetable intake among youth and increased willingness to taste fruits and vegetables among younger children. A meta-analytical synthesis of 20 studies by Langellotto and Gupta (2012) found that gardening increased vegetable consumption in school-aged children, whereas the impacts of nutrition education programs were marginal or non-significant.

The only synthesis of research that examined the impact of garden-based education on academic outcomes over a period of twenty years, 1990–2010, was undertaken by Williams and Dixon (2013). Their analysis of 48 studies found a preponderance of positive impacts on direct academic outcomes, with the highest positive impact for science, followed by math and language arts. Since many of the studies also provided data on a number of related outcomes, additional results were categorized as indirect academic outcomes, as they presented useful information on the impact of garden-based learning on the entire learning experience of participating children and youth. The results of the studies showed that garden-based learning had a positive impact on students’ academic grades, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior at all grade levels. The overall positive findings are important since the research methodologies of the studies were found to be highly varied. These findings speak to the potential of garden programs in benefitting academic and academic-related outcomes. Although for practitioners, administrators, and policymakers, direct academic outcomes might be of primary interest, the totality of effects from the indirect and other effects, such as self-concept, motivation, life skills, and environmental attitudes, also matter. These results were consistent across programs, student samples, and school types and within the variety of research methodologies used (Williams & Dixon, 2013, pp. 225–226). As with other syntheses, the majority of the studies on garden-based education were conducted in elementary schools with small sample size.

Gill (2014) synthesized 61 studies on the benefits of children’s engagement with nature. In those studies that used gardens, claims that were well-supported were that children who took part in school gardening projects improved in scientific learning more than those who did not and they had healthier eating habits. Further, claims that school gardens lead to increased self-awareness and are also associated with good social skills were supported in the garden studies that he reviewed. In their meta-analysis of 12 studies with dietary measures in food and nutrition programs using school gardens, Berezowitz, Bontrager, and Schoeller (2015) found that there were increases and improvements in predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption; there were improvements in measures of science and math scores, as well. Schneider, Pharr, and Bungum (2017) conducted a systematic review of 14 studies to examine impact of school garden participation on nutritional knowledge, fruit/vegetable consumption, taste preferences, physical activity, and math/science academic achievements. Their findings suggested that school gardening programs ideally should include a nutritional component to increase participants’ nutritional knowledge and fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as broaden taste preferences. They concluded that a nutritional education curriculum in addition to gardening activities appears to be an effective strategy for enhancing attitudes toward healthy foods and healthy dietary behaviors. As evidenced in the studies enumerated, vast array of outcomes are measured. Moving beyond positivist approaches, a variety of studies use qualitative and ethnographic case study methods.

Future Directions and Possibilities for Research and Policy

With the enthusiasm and proliferation of school gardens, and the increase in research studies across disciplines that address their outcomes, strengthening garden-based education would require attention to rigor and methodological concerns in research, to influence policy and improve, expand upon, and ensure long-term sustainability of what works in garden-based education and why. Often missing from research are explicit references to demographic information and attention to gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and race of participants. As with environmental education, research that formally examines indigenous practices is limited. There is paucity of studies that explicitly connect with theoretical and conceptual frameworks similar to environmental education research and a lack of critical interrogation and reflection, especially in acknowledging the complexity of doing educational research with varied age groups of learners and diverse contexts of schools, communities, and classrooms. Further, contextual descriptions of program curricula, reports on frequency of garden visits, and teacher and staff voices are also scant and rarely captured. Since much of the research relies on individual case studies, intentionally planning for collective effectiveness of garden programs across campuses would enhance the prospect toward developing school policies to support garden programs.

While “how to” guides (Bucklin-Sporer & Pringle, 2010; Waters & Duane, 2008) for starting school gardens provide practical guidance, the nuances and specifics are often left to new proponents to learn through trial and error experimentation. Systematizing five strands of guidelines/protocols for policy and practice would particularly help practitioners: First, articulation of successful school grounds maintenance procedures that clearly provide a template for the establishment, design, and maintenance of school gardens. These procedures would need to address size, scope, and space required; ideal location and accessibility for students and teachers; watering systems; food harvesting; compost management; and any guidelines related to construction of outdoor classrooms. Researching successful policies that clarify protocols for partnering with non-profits, parent groups, college students, and volunteers would be useful. Second, overcoming school administrator discomfort for garden-based learning that might be seen as “frill” and not central to the educational enterprise that overtly values test score accountability; voices of school leaders who champion gardens and why they see them as educational, would support development of policies utilizing leaders’ perspectives. Third, highlights of successful programs for professional development of in-service and pre-service teachers in garden-based education; what skills, knowledge, and practices are successfully incorporated in schools where teachers are not only comfortable but find gardens as laboratories and sites for innovation, engagement, and active student learning? What promotes effective integration? Fourth, protocols for partnerships that also highlight cultural understandings of and responsiveness to diversity; geographic information system (GIS) mapping can serve as a useful tool to show income-related correlations among neighborhoods and school gardens (Stewart, Pruner, & Guzmán, 2013), to invest in them where they are most needed. Fifth, clear protocols for safety; there are general misconceptions related to safety issues that often prevent practitioners from taking students outdoors even on school grounds for academic study. Safety issues are valid concerns as educators need to be cautious about student allergies to insects or vegetation, or even injuries from use of tools. Protocols for general safety can ensure that contrary to popular belief, behavior problems do not escalate in gardens.

Rather than the regular techniques of researching “gaps” in the literature, proposals in this section are based on the premise that, as innovative practices of school gardens multiply, simultaneous emphasis on research built with practitioners would impact and solidify their practices in significant ways. The emerging trends addressed in environmental education and fields outside of garden-based education can provide insights for ways to launch research endeavors in garden-based education for credibility and legitimacy, especially among policy-makers. Proposed direction and possibilities for future research are presented in this section: undertaking practice-embedded research and co-producing knowledge; and explicitly addressing culture and social justice as school gardens, in their diversity and plurality, offer viable sites to advance knowledge that can also inform other educational innovations. The implicit hidden curriculum of school grounds should also be acknowledged.

Practice-Embedded Research and Co-Production of Knowledge

In her Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture at the American Educational Research Association, President Snow (2015) challenged researchers to embrace Practice-Embedded Research that would require close partnership with practitioners both in conceptualizing and in undertaking research. In order to improve educational outcomes, she emphasized that “educational progress is most likely to emerge from approaches to research that create an equal footing for practitioners and researchers,” and recognizes that “though these groups accumulate and curate knowledge in different ways, they both have a role in creating tools (curricula, practices, professional development approaches) that can be used to forge lasting improvements” (Snow, 2015, p. 460). This approach to research that gives credence to all stakeholders by valuing them has also been proposed by others who engage professionals in self-inquiry of practice through research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009, p. 42). With practice-inspired inquiry undertaken in partnership, the traditional role of researcher as being “outside” of practice changes. Rather, practitioner and researcher through collaborative relationships co-produce knowledge (Heaton, Day, & Britten, 2016). Shifting from a more traditional research paradigm, practice-embedded research draws upon the strengths resulting from embodied understandings and also the discrete expertise of researchers and of practitioners that include garden educators, classroom teachers, and staff. Most importantly, questions relevant to the practice of garden-based learning or the integration of curriculum are raised and researched together to make the practices intelligible by addressing: what are the pressing concerns of practitioners of garden-based education? What are their urgent problems?

As Snow (2015) urges, if we were to take “the wisdom of practice” seriously, it would mean that mechanisms would be developed for “systematizing and curating it—an epistemological structure equivalent to the (clunky but generally admired) set of procedures in place for reviewing research contributions” (p. 464). Forms of practice-embedded research have roots in the scholarship of engagement, practitioner inquiry, and participatory action research. For instance, community-based participatory research brings together community and university partners in shaping the research agenda, through active involvement of all stakeholders in research questions, design, process, and implementation (Hacker, 2013). Learning networks have involved researcher practitioners, policy-makers, and stakeholders working together to improve outcomes of practice. Practitioner inquiry often uses teacher-researcher collaboratives to examine problems that have direct practical relevance (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Within the framework of practice-embedded research, it is imperative for both researchers and practitioners of garden-based education to collaboratively define the questions and approaches to research. To avoid marginalization of garden-based education, formal agreements and commitments to partnership would bring the much-needed cultural shift for acceptance of research in educational institutions.

Reciprocal and mutual relationships develop between researchers and practitioners of garden-based education when they partner to embed research in practice. While not without challenges, researchers would acknowledge the realities of garden-based practices, and garden educators and classroom teachers would commit to rigor in research. The case for practice-embedded research affords the discovery of “unforeseen relevances,” as in qualitative research where newly articulated or untheorized educational phenomena can be explored (Freebody & Freiberg, 2006, p. 710). Practice-embedded research can offer surprises. It acknowledges the time it takes to build and maintain relationships, plan and implement programs and questions to be explored in research. Snow (2015) posits that practice-embedded research requires paying attention to both innovation and implementation.

For adoption and improvement of the practice of garden-based education, the insights, wisdom, and understandings of practitioners are critical. Knowledge of aspects of garden-based education that might be easy to adopt, modify, and implement, and aspects that might be difficult, would encourage critical exploration of practice. Working on professional development with the educators—both garden educators and regular classroom teachers—can provide deep understandings, by capitalizing on the surge of interest and providing knowledge through critical inquiry. Since garden-based education operates within nested systems of schooling which is itself politicized, such research would also enhance expansion of practice beyond a particular unit or class of students to address the structures that can support innovation: who are the stakeholders? What are their understandings and supports for teachers who might embrace garden-based education? In what ways does garden-based education struggle with and address issues of social justice, decolonization, and cultural responsiveness to a diverse student body? How does culture mediate relationships of participants with food and land? Problematizing through careful and critical interrogation of what defines quality in garden-based education would include collaborative exploration of teacher and garden-educator skills, curricular resources and integration, pedagogical innovation, and professional development that contributes to quality. In addition, for garden-based education to be integrated into the school culture, what do teachers and teacher educators need to know? What skills do they need? What is the minimal literacy for garden-based learning for students? What motivates them about learning in the gardens? Can subjects such as science, mathematics, language arts, arts, and social studies be clustered across campuses for research? What professional development support do teachers and garden-educators need? Is more intensive participation associated with stronger outcomes? What are the challenges? How have practitioners overcome these challenges? Who benefits most and why? How can the relationship of research-practice be augmented for policy and resource supports? The temptation to replicate an already existing garden curriculum and pedagogical approaches would be tempered by the research outcomes that would share the nuances and operational constraints and benefits of expanding to other sites.

To grasp the logic of practice, it is worth turning to philosopher Tsoukas (2016) theory: “don’t simplify, complexify.” Although aimed at organizational phenomena and management, his argument that theoretical complexity is needed to deal with organizational complexity is valid for garden-based education with multiple actors involved in its design and implementation in school settings that are complex organizations. Contrary to the assumptions that theory ought to simplify, “since reality is too ambiguous, complex, broad, and diverse to be perceived, understood, and represented without some level of simplification,” (p. 2), Tsoukas (2016) argues that the realities of “context, uniqueness, process, and time” reveal a backward-forward dance differently undertaken by researchers and practitioners. He explains that practitioners live their lives forward in a less orderly and less fluid and uncertain context, one that is different from that of scholars who study that reality backwards. For him, the Newtonian style of thinking, which is dualistic, is disjunctive. In its ease with decontextualized knowledge, disjunctive thinking “splits the world up, sets apart the knower from the phenomenon to be known, and separates facts from values” (p. 6). Yet, “human activities are necessarily context-dependent and underlain by values” (p. 7), he explains. Conjunctive or relational thinking seeks to connect concepts in search of integrated understanding. This is especially important in practical enterprises such as garden-based learning since “unlike theoretical disciplines that are concerned with general features of the world, in practical disciplines ‘clinical’ procedures are required to handle specific cases” (p. 7). Practice-embedded research serves as a unique possibility for championing conjunctive thinking, since both practitioners and researchers have to find ways of connecting and accounting for different experiences.

School settings that incorporate gardens in their curriculum and pedagogy are complex. Complexity, explains Tsoukas (2016), presents itself in a disorderly and ambiguous manner; uncertainty is also its feature. Hence, by complexifying thinking, practitioners and researchers can make sense of garden-based learning through inquiries that would provide space for situational novelty. Garden-based education is uniquely situated for conjunctive theorizing where “concepts are not seen as fixed representations of a pre-given world, but as partly emergent creations” (Tsoukas, 2016, p. 18). Researchers and practitioners alike explore phenomena that are not pre-determined, responding to posthuman challenges to the present economic models of schooling.

For garden-based learning, the lack of large-scale studies, longitudinal studies, and studies with pre-post program measures poses a challenge. The difficulty of researching a large variety of programs across diverse campuses is especially pronounced. While no random treatment of programs is being proposed, it is essential that research methods clarify demographics, program models, intensity and frequency of participation, and the specific components of garden programs that are studied. Further, low-income schools and communities that are less likely to have parental involvement or sustained partnerships are more likely to be left out of innovative practices due to accountability measures supported by high stakes testing; hence commitment is needed to mindfully seek out schools representing socio-economic diversity to partner with. Moreover, although garden-based education spans countries and continents, the majority of the research studies are from North America, Australia, and some European countries. Different cultural contexts for research including indigenous understandings would enrich the field. Plurality of research that comprises multicultural voices must continually be championed (Gough, 2013, p. 18; Reid & Scott, 2013, p. 520), with caution toward a mutually beneficial relationship between researchers and the people with whom they are working (Creswell, 2002). Learning from the broader research field of environmental education and social justice education would enhance research in garden-based learning to address the volatile climate created by disparities in opportunity based on race, gender, class, and other social identities (Moore, Wilson, Kelly-Richards, & Marston, 2015; Warren, 2005; Warren, Roberts, Bruenig, & Alvaez, 2014; Williams, 2012). As Montanari (2006) states, eating is a “cultural act.” To address the needs of culturally diverse students, scholars outside the field of garden-based education have called for culturally responsive pedagogy (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Gay, 2010; Howard, 2012), real-life active learning (Howard, 2012; Yager & Brunkhorst, 2014), and academic activities that are challenging yet are provided within supportive contexts that facilitate engagement and motivational outcomes of commitment and identification (Ryan & Deci, 2016; Skinner & Pitzer, 2012). Culturally responsive pedagogy rejects the deficit assumptions and approaches that some educators have historically held about diverse students in their classrooms, and explicitly acknowledges the lived experiences of students as strengths (Howard, 2012; Sheets, 2005; Williams & Anderson, 2015). Garden-based education is well positioned to legitimize the diverse cultural understandings of students. Grappling with real-world Anthropocene issues as they relate to food, soil, and climate challenges, for instance, students actively learn in the garden and critically engage with the nuances of real-life that impact them daily. Research shows that when students are supported in relevant and meaningful learning by caring educators, they become more engaged and intrinsically motivated to learn. Culturally responsive learning environments include positive teacher-student relationships, value students’ cultural assets, and shift power dynamics between educator and learners. Garden-based education programs are ripe for researching these possibilities that can influence policy.


School grounds, with or without gardens, implicitly communicate what a school and its community values. With their unspoken cultural messages, gardens on school grounds serve as “informal texts” just by their very presence. In a study of Learning Through Landscapes in the United Kingdom, Titman (1994) interviewed 216 children, ages 5 to 12, in groups, about their views and experiences of school grounds. She found that there was a positive correlation between the behaviors and attitudes of children and the conditions of the school grounds. Children also believed that the design of the school ground was an explicit attempt by someone to make it what it was. She discovered that when school grounds failed to meet the needs of children to make them enjoyable, fun, and accessible, they believed that adults who were in positons of authority had made a conscious decision and they did not care. Gardens on school grounds, as vanguards of innovation, are part of the overall learning experience of schooling; they also communicate implicit and hidden messages. In espousing the hidden curriculum, they must not be ignored. With the resurgence of interest in program offerings and in research, the emergent scholarship in garden-based education needs to embrace conjunctive thinking while further pursuing with clarity the goals, the fundamental questions being explored, and how the pressing and complex real-world problems are being addressed. For this, practice-embedded research jointly undertaken by researchers and practitioners in the co-production of knowledge is proposed. As with environmental education, garden-based education is rarely driven by theory or problematized in the literature, since the practice itself is diffused and marginalized. While tenuous and vulnerable to the vagaries of funding and short-term partnerships, as climate fluctuations and concerns about the Anthropocene era enter public consciousness, policy-makers and practitioners alike will likely consider school gardens as effective milieus for learning and connecting children and youth with nature. Garden-based education is well-positioned to provide a vision for alternatives to the industrialized model of schooling so that children and youth are empowered to deal with future climate uncertainties. Robust research, critical theory, and sound grass-roots cultural practices jointly undertaken as proposed, can provide impetus for policy justification and institutional commitment for a movement that is on a path ripe for bringing life to schools and schools to life (Williams & Brown, 2012). As islands of biological, cultural, and communal activity, gardens in education also offer opportunities where the human-nature boundaries can be interrogated. Or perhaps, dissolved.


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