The Resurgence of School Gardens

Reader Contribution by Yardmap Network
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When I began researching whether there’s been an increase in school gardens in the last ten years, I assumed the simple answer to this question was, yes, of course. To my surprise, however, the early decades of the 20th century the United States had a vibrant school garden movement occurring in major U.S. cities, such as, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York. Local school districts even allocated money in these cities to support the development of school gardens. This seems significant given that only 39.6 percent of the US population lived in cities while the majority of the US population, 60.4 percent, lived in rural areas where they were likely actively engaged in agricultural and gardening endeavors. Even in the 1900s, people were concerned that young people were moving away from their relationship to the natural world, and school gardens were one place to reconnect them. This historical school garden movement went underground after World War I, when our educational priorities in the United States became focused on preparing youth for industry positions to further technological advancements. But, it was built on strong rootstock and the vision never died.

For the last 20 years, we’ve found ourselves in another burgeoning school garden movement. Not so different from the early 1900s, there is increasing concern that young people have lost a valuable relationship to the natural world, and school gardens are seen as a part of the solution. In the “…state of New York (alone), more than 200 schools, 100 teachers, and 11,000 students garden using a state curriculum”. And, according to the USDA, in a 2010 census administered to districts all over the United States, 31% of surveyed schools (2,401 schools), said they grew edible food gardens. The federal government is taking this issue so seriously that in 2010 The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Action (HHFKA) formally established a program to help provide resources to schools interested in providing local foods in their lunch programs.

The issues that have inspired this recent school garden movement differ slightly than those of the early 1900s. Today, one out of every three children in the United States is obese. Currently, over 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in urban centers; twice as many as during the original school garden movement. Opportunities for the majority of young people to interact and engage with the natural world are becoming less and less available. So, here returns the push for school gardens. Access to healthy fruits and vegetables helps address the obesity issue, students experience the therapeutic effects of spending time in green spaces, and habitat is created for wildlife in areas once denude of it, all while young people are actively engaging in learning. The early studies are showing all of these factors have a positive impact on student’s health and school performance.

Thus, the not-so-simple answer to the question of whether we’ve seen an increase in school gardens in the past decade is, we’ve seen a return to the values of educating our youth using outdoor, green spaces. Though there is preliminary evidence that this form of education improves behavior, performance, health and nutritional choices; the data to support these claims are just beginning to be collected. Still, thousands of schools across the United States, eager to inspire their educational communities are asking their constituencies to pick-up their hoes, shovels, gloves and seeds to plant a school garden on their roof, playground, blacktop, front porch, or any space available. As one young man from the CitySprout program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says, “If you take care of the garden, the garden takes care of you.” Is this not one of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children? What we take care of, in turn takes care of us. Welcome back school garden movement, we need you now more than ever.

To learn more about school gardens and creating gardens all over your community, visit YardMap,  Cultivating Habitats. Or join the nearly 500 schools that have documented their schools and gardens using YardMap.

Trelstad, B. (1997). Little Machines in Their Gardens: A History of School Gardens in America, 1891 to 1920. Landscape Journal, 16 (2), 161–173.

Blair, D. (2009). The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative Review of the Benefits of School Gardening. The Journal of Environmental Education, VOL. 40( NO. 2), 15–38.

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