“The importance of gardening...is written into our physiology”[1]

It almost goes without saying that gardening is a positive activity in its own right: physically enhancing an environment makes it more pleasant in which to work and learn, and various incentives, corporate sponsorship schemes and cash awards are available to facilitate this.  At HartyCulture, we specialise in gardening within an educational context, as we know that it can serve as a powerful tool for learning and skills development and offer significant benefits to young people in terms of developing emotional intelligence.  A huge body of research evidences these benefits, and this page highlights just a few. 

Firstly and most obviously, gardening in schools offers children not just physical exercise in an outdoor space, but also an understanding of the natural world, such as the lifecycle of plants and animals, and how weather influences the world around us.  Additionally, it can help to develop an appreciation of environmental sustainability and stewardship.  Research tells us that students participating in a school gardening programme demonstrated - perhaps unsurprisingly - an increased understanding of ecology, interconnections in nature, and a responsibility to care for the environment[3].  Against a backdrop of climate change and increasing pressure on global resources, this message is only ever becoming more pertinent to children as they grow up.  But that’s not all.  Gardening in schools offers an opportunity to learn about the natural connection between what we grow and what we eat, by giving children the opportunity to plan, harvest, prepare, and share food that they have been involved in growing themselves.  In rural communities, this helps children to make sense of what they see going on around them, and in urban communities it can help children to understand some of the sources of food.  This can also establish positive – and ideally lifelong - choices about healthy eating, as children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruit and vegetables.

 

And it doesn’t end there.  Research from the USA showed that participation in gardening can positively impact on performance in other areas too.  In three studies in different locations across the US, students participating in school gardening activities scored more highly in science achievement tests than those working to a curriculum without garden experiences[4].  However gardening doesn’t just have to be used as a catalyst for developing knowledge in scientific areas: gardening activities can be integrated into all areas of the school curriculum (for example, creating art and stories inspired by gardens), making learning more meaningful, and helping to bring it alive[5] and multi-dimensional.

 

More generally, gardening can make a significant contribution to personal skills development in children and young people.  This includes tangible “doing” skills, such as planning, problem-solving and decision-making (what are the factors that influence when and where particular plants should be grown, for example); working co-operatively with others in groups (taking into account others’ views and discussing issues in order to reach consensus).  It also contributes to the achievement of personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU): social and interpersonal skills can also be developed through activity in an outdoor classroom, and again this is not speculation - the evidence proves it.  One study showed that those students who completed a survey of life skills following participation in a gardening programme showed a significant increase in self-understanding and the ability to work in groups, as compared to non-participating students[6].  Youth interns in community gardens reported increases in maturity, responsibility and interpersonal skills[7].  Related to this, a gardening programme can bring spin-off benefits to the life of the school: research shows that parental involvement (known to enhance student achievement) increases at schools with garden programmes.   

 

Gardening also offers psychological and other benefits.  Long recognised as a therapeutic activity which can have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing, there’s much evidence to suggest that the importance of gardening is written into our psychology, as well as our physiology.  Serotonin levels increase after just three minutes of exposure to plants, and research suggests that this can help to improve relationships between people, and increase feelings of compassion, concern and empathy toward others.  The term “biophilia” has been coined as a label for this instinct to connect with other living, growing things: as human beings, we want to feel part of the web of life.  Working directly with children in a learning context, we have a unique opportunity – and arguably a duty – to guide children in the development of their emotional intelligence, their relationships and how they conduct themselves and interact with others, and research indicates that gardening can play a key role in this.  This is why we at HartyCulture do what we do. 

 

This takes us to a final thought, and that is how gardening can positively shape individuals’ formative experiences and influence activities carried out in later life.  One survey showed that people who reported planting trees, working with fruit or vegetables or living next to a garden in childhood were more likely to show an interest in gardening as they aged, and in studies with adult gardeners, most respondents recalled vivid positive memories of play and exploration in childhood gardens, which inspired their desire to garden later in life[8].  On the other side of the coin, access to gardening in the early years can also serve as a foil to potentially negative or even offending behaviour.  Examples demonstrate this to us.  When juvenile offenders assessed their participation in a horticultural training programme, most believed that it sparked their interest in further education and improved their job skills[9] – two of the key factors that can help to reduce re-offending.  Testing juvenile offenders before and after participation in a similar horticultural programme found that, in addition to increasing horticultural knowledge and pro-environmental attitudes, participants also increased their levels of self-esteem[10].  At HartyCulture we have worked with groups of vulnerable young people and adults by offering opportunities to participate in horticultural activity, and we understand the pivotal role that education and personal insight can play in helping individuals to make positive life choices.

 

Given the physiological, developmental and psychological benefits that gardening offers, as proven by a vast body of evidence, one begins to wonder how long we need to wait before gardening does become an integral, explicit, and funded feature of the educational curriculum.                                   

Copyright HartyCulture 2017

 

[1] Dr Larry Dossey writing the foreword for "Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening", Fran Sorin, Braided Worlds Publishing, 2016

[2] In the interests of space, and for these purposes, we have provided only abbreviated citations to publications in the footnotes: full citations are available on request. 

[3] Mayer-Smith, Bartosh & Peterat, 2007

[4] Klemmer, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2005; Dirks & Orvis, 2005; Smith & Motsenbocker, 2005

[5] Canaris, 1995

[6] Robinson & Zajicek, 2005

[7] Hung, 2004

[8] Francis, 1995; Gross & Lane, 2007

[9] Flagler, 1995

[10] Cammack, Waliczek & Zajicek, 2002

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