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The Effects of School Gardens on Children’s Science Knowledge: A randomized controlled trial of low-income elementary schools

Posted by | September 5, 2017

This randomized controlled trial or ‘true experiment’ examines the effects of a school garden intervention on the science knowledge of elementary school children. Schools were randomly assigned to a group that received the garden intervention (n = 25) or to a waitlist control group that received the garden intervention at the end of the study (n = 24). The garden intervention consisted of both raised-bed garden kits and a series of 19 lessons. Schools, located in the US states of Arkansas, Iowa, Washington, and New York, were all low-income as defined by having 50% or more children qualifying for the federal school lunch program. Participants were students in second, fourth, and fifth grade (ages 6–12) at baseline (n = 3,061). Science knowledge was measured using a 7-item questionnaire focused on nutritional science and plant science. The survey was administered at baseline (Fall 2011) and at three time points during the intervention (Spring 2012, Fall 2012, and Spring 2013). Garden intervention fidelity (GIF) captured the robustness or fidelity of the intervention delivered in each classroom based on both lessons delivered and garden activities. Analyses were conducted using general linear mixed models. Survey data indicated that among children in the garden intervention, science knowledge increased from baseline to follow-up more than among control group children. However, science knowledge scores were uniformly poor and gains were very modest. GIF, which takes into account the robustness of the intervention, revealed a dose–response relation with science knowledge: more robust or substantial intervention implementations corresponded to stronger treatment effects.


Where schools are equipped with gardens … opportunities exist for reproducing situations of life, and for acquiring and applying information … Gardening need not be taught either for the sake of preparing future gardeners, or as an agreeable way of passing time … [gardens] are a means for making a study of the facts of growth, the chemistry of soil, the role of light, air, moisture … (Dewey (1916 p. 235)

School gardens are far from new as a pedagogical tool. School gardens (along with outdoor and experiential learning more generally) have a long history in a variety of educational philosophies including those of Rousseau, Montessori, and Dewey (see Desmond, Grieshop, & Subramaniam, 2002Subramaniam; 2002; Trelsta 1997). John Amos Comenius (1592–1670), the father of modern education, advocated that ‘A garden should be connected with every school, where children can at times gaze upon trees, flowers, and herbs, and be taught to enjoy them’ (Weed & Emerson, 1909 p. 42). Although school gardens were promoted in the late 1800s and early 1900s—both in Britain and in the USA—with aims to address issues of city beautification, public health, and the development of good citizens, with relatively little focus on educational outcomes, prior to that era the initial school garden movement was sparked by the Nature-Study Movement, with the central aim to make learning interactive through the use of nature (Hayden-Smith, 2014; Trelstad, 1997). Dewey endorsed gardening as part of his ‘object teaching’ pedagogy employing hands-on learning rather than rote memorization (Dewey, 1916‘ Trelstad, 1997). School gardens are one way to bring learning outside the walls of the school and to employ engagement with nature as an experiential learning strategy (Desmond et al., 2002; Moore, 1995Subramaniam, 2002(see Figure 1; The Brookline Connection, photo 1916). The potential for garden-based learning has, more recently, been described as ‘encompass[ing] programs, activities and projects in which the garden is the foundation for integrated learning, in and across disciplines, through active, engaging, real-world experiences’ (Desmond et al., p. 7). And yet, aside from a brief reappearance as part of World War II victory garden efforts (Hayden-Smith, 2014; Ossian, 2011), the current resurgence of school gardens follows a long period of relative dormancy since World War I (Trelstad, 1997).

Figure 1. Students from Brookline elementary, Brookline Massachusetts work the school garden, 1916 (Source: The Brookline connection)

Continue reading in International Journal of Science Education 

Originally written by Beth M. Myers, Lauren E. Todd, Karen Barale, Brad Gaolach, Gretchen Ferenz, Martha Aitken, Charles R. Henderson , Jr, Caroline Tse, Karen Ostlie Pattison, Cayla Taylor, Laura Connerly, Janet B. Carson, Alexandra Z. Gensemer, Nancy K. Franz & Elizabeth Falk

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