Carl E. Motsenbocker and Leanna L. Smith
School gardens are used as outdoor classrooms around the United States to supplement the curriculum. Educators have reported that school gardens can be used to teach across the curriculum and that concepts and skills from virtually every subject can be learned through a school garden. For example:
- Native species used by early settlers or native inhabitants and their role in daily life can be explored for social studies.
- The outdoor classroom is a tangible place to apply math concepts such as measuring perimeter, circumference and ratios of plants and trees, and growth rates can be charted.
- The outdoor classroom can also be an inspiration for language arts such as for writing stories, poetry and journals, for reading and for sketching, painting and making creative rubbings.
- A school garden can provide hands-on learning and stimulate discussions about many aspects of the natural world such as food chains, balanced ecosystems, diversity, change, communities and interrelationships and enhance classroom science classes.
In many cases, gardens can provide a link between concepts learned in the classroom and real-life applications. The use of gardens to provide hands-on science activities is not a new concept, but little research has been conducted to quantify the effects of gardens and their potential benefits.
Gardens have been used in schools in the United States since the late 1890s and early 1900s. Research to quantify the effects of school gardens, however, is relatively new. Educators have written many articles using observations and anecdotes to relate the qualitative effects of school gardens on students, but few research studies have been conducted. The studies have examined the wide range of effects such as environmental attitude, nutrition knowledge, social interaction, interpersonal skills and science achievement.
A horticulture-based, hands-on science curriculum that included small garden plots was introduced into public elementary schools in East Baton Rouge Parish as a pilot study. Three inner-city schools with both experimental and control fifth grade classes were selected. The Junior Master Gardener (JMG) Handbook Level 1 was the curriculum chosen for classroom integration. This program targets grades 3 to 5 and was chosen because of its thoroughness and stimulating activities. Only the first four chapters out of the eight in the teacher/leader guide were used in this study in the fall semester. Selected activities, usually 15 to 20 minutes each, were implemented in a 14-week period.
Garden activities were included in addition to the handson science activities. These were not specified in the JMG program but were supplemental to the formal lessons. The gardening space was standardized with each school having three 4-foot by 10-foot garden beds for the students as their outdoor classroom area. Students planted herbs such as mint, rosemary, parsley and basil as well as cool-season vegetables such as broccoli, radish, lettuce, carrots and potatoes. The teachers and students were responsible for making sure the gardens were properly watered and fertilized.
The program was introduced as an informal science education program taught by volunteers from an LSU servicelearning horticulture science education class and Louisiana Master Gardeners. The volunteers went into the schools for two hours each week during regular school days to lead the lessons and work with students in the gardens. The first hour and a half was used for JMG program activities, and the last half hour was used for garden time.
During the semester approximately four hours were spent on 10 activities from the first chapter (Plant Growth and Development), slightly less than three hours were spent on six activities from the second chapter (Soils and Water), approximately three hours were spent on seven activities from the third chapter (Ecology and Environmental Horticulture), and approximately two and a half hours were spent on five activities from the fourth chapter (Insects and Diseases).
Most of the volunteers had never taught children before and were guided in leading the lessons. The schools varied in the total number of volunteers assigned due to differing class sizes. The presence of the volunteers, however, allowed the classes to be divided into small groups of four to six students each. The presence of the adult volunteers for supervision also allowed for greater management of the students in the garden.
Science achievement tests of 40 questions developed at Texas A&M University specifically for the JMG program were given before the program started and after the students participated in the gardening activities to determine whether or not the activities helped improve achievement scores. In addition, a control class at each school in the same grade was also tested.
Students who participated in the program had higher science achievement test scores at the end of the semester compared to the beginning. In comparison, there were no differences in pre- and post-test scores of the control classes. The chapters that were most effective in influencing the fifth grade students were "Plant Growth and Development," the chapter that most time was spent on, and "Insects and Disease." There were, however, no differences in test scores between the program participants and the control classes. The outcome of the gardening project was not affected by gender, indicating both girls and boys equally benefited from the program. Several variables such as the degree of integration of the program into regular school activities and the interests of the teachers may have affected the outcome of the study. The results show, however, that once-weekly use of gardens and hands-on classroom activities help improve science achievement test scores.
In the future, the formal organization and support of school gardening may be realized in many states, including Louisiana. Until then, more research into the benefits and effects of gardening is needed in order to justify the efforts in school gardening projects.
Individuals who are interested in supporting school gardening projects in Louisiana have several ways to get involved. Teachers can incorporate school gardening in their curriculums. Many programs, such as the JMG program, can be used in the classroom. In addition, the LSU AgCenter has 4-H programs that develop and support gardening clubs in schools. Gardeners may get involved by becoming Master Gardener volunteers. Most parishes in Louisiana have an active Louisiana Master Gardener program. In other states, the JMG and similar programs also are administered through the Master Gardener program.
Parents and other interested persons, especially those who are active gardeners, can become involved and volunteer to support hands-on gardening projects at neighborhood schools. Local businesses, such as garden centers, and civic organizations often support educational programs in neighborhood schools. Only by working together will Louisiana school children have the opportunity to benefit from hands-on science programs like the JMG program.
Carl E. Motsenbocker, Professor, and Leanna L. Smith, former graduate student, Department of Horticulture, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.
(This article appeared in the summer 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)