Research Summary

Analyzing teacher narratives in early childhood garden-based education

Using School Gardens to Promote Learning and Developmental Outcomes in Early Education

The Journal of Environmental Education

School gardens are becoming increasingly popular as places for students to learn across disciplines. They are viewed as teaching tools that can effectively develop students’ language skills, cultural and social competencies, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) competencies, understanding of food systems, health and wellness knowledge, and creative expression abilities. Research indicates that garden learning can promote positive health and academic outcomes for young children. For instance, previous studies suggest garden education can reduce childhood obesity while providing students the opportunity to learn about science and the environment. Self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that school garden curricula will best promote learning and developmental outcomes when it is designed to build students’ autonomy, relatedness, and competence. This study explored the ways that early childhood educators use school gardens as teaching tools by investigating teachers’ perceptions of how gardens promote positive outcomes.

The authors conducted this study at the Child Development Laboratory, an early childhood education center in the Midwest United States that serves infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Their study focused on 12 teachers, with 1-4 years of teaching experience, who facilitated garden activities during the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons. During the first growing season, the authors photographed students and teachers participating in garden activities. The researchers used these photos as prompts to spur teachers’ reflections on garden learning. After each growing season, the authors interviewed the teachers about their approaches to facilitating garden activities and the perceived educational values associated with garden learning. The authors analyzed these interviews to identify themes.

The authors concluded that school gardens can provide rich opportunities for students to develop a variety of cognitive skills, physical, social, and emotional competencies, autonomy, knowledge about wellness and nutrition, and STEM skills. The results of this study indicated that school gardens have the potential to promote growth across a broad spectrum of learning and developmental goals. The authors identified six core areas in which participant teachers perceived growth in their students: 1) cognitive development; 2) scientific and environmental knowledge; 3) physical, social, and emotional development; 4) understanding of food systems and health; 5) creative self-expression; and 6) linguistic development.

The study also found that garden activities can spark curiosity and excitement for discovery and learning among young children. Teachers identified four types of activities in the garden that they believed to be most effective in advancing learning and developmental outcomes. Teachers indicated that authentic gardening experiences (such as planting, harvesting, pulling weeds, etc.) promoted physical development and feelings of self-efficacy and accomplishment. In addition, teachers highlighted how sensory experiences in the garden—such as smelling, feeling, and seeing—promoted cognitive development and STEM learning. The teachers felt that students were making connections to larger communities, which helped build relationships and encourage students to share their knowledge. Lastly, activities that encouraged exploration, inquiry, and discovery bolstered children’s voluntary engagement, thus providing motivation and further academic success.

During the interviews, the teachers also highlighted many garden activities that promoted the development of self-determination behaviors. For example, the authors described an activity in which the teachers helped the children assemble houses similar to the famous “Three Little Pigs” story. The children used garden materials to build houses made from straw, sticks, and bricks and then took turns trying to blow them down. The teachers were there to assist, but the students were encouraged to independently choose their materials and build their houses, thus encouraging autonomous learning.

School gardens are being used as teaching tools across many age groups. The focus of this study on early childhood education may limit its applications to different age groups. The case study nature of this research and the limited participation of 12 teachers also restrains the generalizability of the results. Additionally, the research evaluated teachers’ perceptions of student learning as opposed to directly measuring students’ learning outcomes. This limitation is important to consider when applying the results to other institutions.

The authors encourage educators to consider the vast array of learning opportunities that school gardens can provide and encourage garden curricula to be taught outside of science classes. The authors recommend that educators design garden curricula around activities that promote authentic garden experiences, sensory exploration of the environment, community connections, and discovery of self and the natural world.

The Bottom Line

School gardens are becoming increasingly popular among educators as tools to promote learning and development. Evidence indicates that garden education can promote healthy development and academic growth in young children. This case study explored the perceptions of infant, toddler, and preschool educators about school gardens as teaching tools. The results indicated that gardens can be places of wonder that spark excitement for learning. They can provide rich opportunities for students to develop a variety of cognitive skills, physical, social, and emotional competencies, autonomy, knowledge about wellness and nutrition, and STEM skills. The most effective garden curricular designs encourage children to engage in authentic gardening, make connections to the community, and freely explore the garden space and their own ideas.