The blossoming health and academic benefits of school gardens

Story highlights

  • Research suggests that school gardens help students get excited about school and do better on tests
  • About a quarter of U.S. public elementary schools have a school garden; they are less common in low-income areas

(CNN)Many of the kids who go to John J. Pershing Elementary School in Dallas do not spend much time outdoors. They live in what some would describe as unsafe neighborhoods and their parents often do not let them go outside and play.

"They look at life through a window," said Margie Hernandez, the school's principal.
But these kids are at least experiencing the great outdoors when they are at school. Four years ago, Pershing built a garden that has grown to include a pond and four chickens. Teachers take students into the garden at least once a week for class or just for a walk, to pick some basil or water the chickens.
    When they are in the garden, "children who normally would not speak or raise their hand are now engaging in a lesson without being prompted," Hernandez said. And the effects seem to last after they leave the garden. The students are scoring better on standardized tests and are just more excited in general about school.
    Pershing is one of many schools in low-income neighborhoods in Texas that are partnering with a program called REAL School Gardens. This fall, the program, which started about 10 years ago, will be bringing a garden to its 100th school. It will soon expand to the Washington, D.C., area.
    REAL School Gardens helps schools plan and build their garden based on students' designs. Although most gardens -- unlike Pershing's -- do not have chickens, all of them have vegetable beds and walkways, and most of them have something for shade, such as a gazebo. The program works with teachers at the school for three years to help them adapt their lesson plans to the garden environment.
    "The guiding principle is that if we can get kids more engaged with learning, there would be a better foundation for academic success later on," said Jeanne McCarty, CEO of REAL School Gardens. "Kids are more engaged in real world, hands-on learning, particularly at the elementary school level," she added.
    Teachers at schools that partner with REAL School Gardens report that their students seem more engaged in lessons. There are also short-term signs of academic success. Three years after getting school gardens, between 12% and 15% more children in these schools passed standardized tests.
    The program has also found that about twice as many teachers report being satisfied with their job after their school cultivates its garden. "We expected that students would be more engaged, but as a result it was re-engaging teachers with the profession of teaching. It was exciting and surprising and valuable," said McCarty, adding that teacher turnover is a big problem in urban school districts.
    About 27% of public elementary schools have a school garden, according to research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. However they are less common in low-income areas, where REAL School Gardens is focusing,