School gardens improve health and academic performance, reduce discipline problems



Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods, refers to the constellation of problems that occur when children become disconnected from nature. Nature deficit disorder can be prevented by creating green spaces on school grounds.

Having a school garden transforms a barren schoolyard into an attractive space that reconnects students to the natural world. Gardens not only make school grounds more appealing, they can also produce tangible benefits in the form of better health, enhanced academic performance, and reduced disciplinary problems.

Green spaces provide health benefits

The National Environmental Education Foundation (2010) summarizes a number of research studies on the health benefits of time spent in green spaces:

  • Children’s stress levels are lower when they spend time in natural environments (Wells & Evans, 2003).
  • Exposure to natural environments can reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001; Kuo & Taylor, 2004).
  • Access to natural environments is associated with reduced risk of suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental health issues, as well as various diseases and digestive problems (Maas et al., 2009).
  • Those who live in the greenest environments are less likely to die from all causes, and green spaces may reduce socioeconomic inequities in overall health (Mitchell & Popham, 2008).
  • Children living in greener areas are less likely to become obese (Bell, Wilson, & Liu, 2008).
  • Green school grounds promote increased and more vigorous physical activity (Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness & Council on School Health, 2006).

School gardens encourage kids to eat healthier foods

Many of the problems students face, ranging from ADHD to obesity, originate with unhealthy eating. Dr. Alan Greene (2010) reports that ADHD diagnoses have tripled over the past 20 years, and the incidence of depression and anxiety disorders has increased as well due in part to mass consumption of junk food. Dr. Greene notes that taking supplements won’t address the problems associated with poor diet because many nutrients found in whole foods, particularly fresh produce, work synergistically.

Replacing foods made from refined sugar and flour with produce is beneficial, as simple carbohydrates quickly enter the bloodstream, causing a fluctuation of glucose levels that can have negative effects on mood, memory, judgement, learning, and behaviour. According to Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons (1993), people who are sensitive to refined sugar are more likely to suffer from depression, poor impulse control, anger, aggression, fatigue, moodiness, concentration difficulties, and low-self-esteem. Children are particularly susceptible to these problems.

Studies have shown the benefits of eliminating artificial colours and preservatives and having children eat more fresh produce and complex carbohydrates. For example:

  • 1,800 three-year-olds showed measurable behavioural improvements after cutting artificial ingredients (colourants and preservatives) from their diets for a single week (Bateman et al., 2004)
  • Shifting teenagers\’ diets toward complex carbohydrates and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables at a Wisconsin high school for at-risk students reduced disruption, violence, drug abuse, suicide attempts, dropping out, headaches, stomach aches, and complaints of feeling tired, and significantly increased attendance, concentration, and academic performance (Keeley & Fields, 2004).

School gardens can potentially bring about these benefits by showing students where food actually comes from and encouraging them to eat lots of fresh produce. Studies and teacher observations of school gardens have shown that young people are far more likely to eat fruits and vegetables that they’ve grown themselves. For example, of the 4th through 6th graders at a “Delicious and Nutritious Garden” YMCA summer camp who had the opportunity to grow their own produce, 98% enjoyed taste testing the produce and 93% enjoyed cooking it.

Academic and behavioural benefits of environmental education

School gardens enable teachers to provide on-site environmental education, and studies have shown that environmental education has positive effects both on both student behaviour and academic performance. A national study conducted by the State Education and Environmental Roundtable (2000) found that environmental education students scored higher than their traditional education counterparts in:

  • 77% of all academic assessments overall
  • 80% of all language arts assessments
  • 65% of all math assessments
  • 67% of all science assessments
  • 77% of all social studies assessments

They also scored higher in 84% of all assessments of attendance and discipline, largely because students in environmental education programs tend to be more engaged and enthusiastic about learning, and take more pride in their accomplishments.

Both behavioural and academic improvements are often dramatic. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation (2010):\"\"

  • 100% of Hawley Environmental Elementary School students but just 25% of Milwaukee public school students overall passed the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension test.
  • Isaac Dickson Elementary School students in North Carolina improved their math scores by an average of 31% in a single year with the introduction of environment-based programs.

And Richard Louv (2005) reports that:

  • Little Falls High School students (Minnesota) that participated in environmental education had 54% fewer suspensions than their traditional education peers.
  • Hotchkiss Elementary (Texas) reduced principal’s office referrals from 560 to just 50 within two years after adding an environmental education program.

For more on the benefits of school gardens, see School gardens provide better learning opportunities. For tips on establishing school gardens, see How to create a school garden.