School Gardens: A Growing Trend to Get Kids to Eat Better

In a sea of dismal health statistics it can often seem the cards are stacked high against parents who are trying to instill healthy eating habits in their kids. The current landscape of nutritional void is too big of a problem for parents to navigate alone. 

At every point of contact with food our kids are bombarded with messages to consume more sugar and processed food. TV commercials, restaurants, school cafeterias and social events reaffirm the new norm: faux food is in, real food is out.

Plus, as our society continues to shift away from agriculture we begin to associate food coming from concrete buildings instead of garden beds. What options do parents have to combat the negative influencing factors? When will it stop feeling like convincing kids to eat vegetables is a Herculean task? 

Contrary to the perception that American schools only serve junk foods, a new trend is emerging to implement gardens into the curriculum to help restore the broken bond between children and nature. With the help of Guilford County School Garden Network educators can learn and share ideas for lesson plans and start their own on-sight gardens. There are currently roughly 67 schools in Guilford County, NC with existing programs, but one in particular deserves a spotlight on its extraordinary achievement in this area.

The Greensboro Montessori School in Greensboro, NC has taken on a massive undertaking to highly integrate its gardening program into the curriculum. 18 years ago Charlie Headington launched the school’s permaculture program, which now includes three large on-sight gardens with a wide variety of herbs, vegetables, and fruits. The school even has its own bee hive. In addition to the on-campus agriculture space, GMS utilizes 40-acres of undeveloped woods called “The Land” in a neighboring town for overnight trips with the middle schoolers.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Eliza Hudson, a garden teacher at the school, to find out specifically how the GMS program stands out from neighboring school gardens. In fact, Hudson “can’t think of another school that offers this intensive level of permaculture implementation in the country.” She credits the school’s “child centered learning” structure that creates the opportunity for “every kid to become alive in this environment.” According to the school’s gardening curriculum guide, “It takes a universe to raise a child, and at GMS our garden presents the living universe to a child.” 

This deep rooted philosophy and dedication to foster children’s love for nature has created a unique place for students that will not only increase their knowledge of botany, but will also benefit their health well into the future.

Breakdown of the program 

From the moment I arrived on campus, I was greeted with a beautiful landscape of fresh herbs and flowers. Toddlers were picking the rosemary bush to rub the aroma over their fingers. It was so calming to pause and take a few deep breaths to savor the serenity of the environment. 

All the outdoor transition spaces between buildings are dedicated to gardening. Similar to the technique casinos use to place slot machines in all the entrance points to entice you to gamble, the school places plants to entice the students to interact with nature. Kids exit their classrooms into the outdoor oasis, and they are welcome to nibble on the produce as they play. Lower elementary teacher, Kaki Sowinski, noted how her students sample the fresh vegetables without hesitation when they are outside. 

The gardens are also fully embraced as an extension to the learning environment for all five age clusters at the school ranging from 18 months to 8th grade: toddler, primary, lower elementary, upper elementary and middle school. The curriculum for each division is structured to expose every student to “ecological exploration” with age appropriate lesson plans.  

Toddlers are encouraged to experience the gardens through sensory activities: taking walks and taste testing the fresh produce. Even at this young age kids are responsible for watering plants inside the classroom, and given the opportunity to plant flowers outside. 

As kids matriculate into higher divisions they take on more responsibilities managing the gardens. Their stronger bodies are capable of more laborious tasks such as weeding, mulching, planting seeds, harvesting, and building beds. Cooking classes are introduced in the primary level.

By the time students reach middle school they have been exposed to all aspects of caring for the gardens by being stewards of the land. They are now ready to apply their knowledge into running the school’s “farm to fork” restaurant and participate in The Land program. 

On Fridays middle school students are responsible for every level of the restaurant’s operations: taking orders, cooking the meals, and delivery. Not only do students learn what it takes to supply the raw ingredients, but they also acquire analytical business skills- especially when there is a breakdown along the production chain. 

The curriculum of the The Land program is the embodiment of the Montessori experience. Envision the perfect marriage of an outdoor learning space and sleep away camp. Over the course of the school year students make multiple overnight trips to the sight honing their construction skills, building camaraderie among their peers, and learning to be self sufficient. The first year The Land was introduced into the curriculum it was only a wooded area. In order to make overnight stays possible the kids had to build sleeping and cooking structures. With each incoming class, students choose which projects to pursue to enrich their experience. Some recent projects include a waterless toilet system, sheds and an outdoor oven. Students make a team decision about what their contribution to The Land will be. 

From the youngest ages to graduation, GMS students have a rare opportunity to actively engage with the natural world around them through activities that are solely offered here. 

Can the GMS model be adopted in other schools?

Hudson acknowledges there are many challenges that act as barriers to implementing the GMS curriculum in other schools.

For starters, institutional support is a critical component in establishing and maintaining a successful garden program. Schools must be willing to hire the appropriate staff. For the same reasons you wouldn’t hire a math teacher to teach a foreign language, are the same reasons hiring a gardener(s) is essential. The staff must be knowledgable about the local soil conditions, which plants to grow and when to cultivate, and most importantly know how to engage students with nature. GMS currently has 3 full time employees dedicated to the program.

Secondly, the large scale integration of the outdoors is nearly impossible in a typical school bound by common core standards, where a significant portion of the lesson plans are tailored to test taking. Teachers in most schools simply don’t have the time nor flexibility to stray away from pre-set coursework. Tests aren’t designed to evaluate a student’s emotional connection with the natural world around them, nor the intellectual growth they experience from observing the botanical life cycle.  Which is why many schools are scrubbing lessons plans to focus more on test material to raise their school’s performance in areas that are evaluated, regardless if those measured points are truly the factors that will foster successful adults. 

Whereas at GMS, the “guided by the child” teaching philosophy is designed to take advantage of the unplanned learning opportunities that arise. GMS teachers are actually encouraged to creatively present educational materials that would never be found on a standardized test. Time is even set aside for activities like bug hunts.

Lastly, land space is a logistical necessity- is there physical space available for such a program?     Implementing a permaculture program, which focuses a lot of attention on soil quality obviously requires land. Clearly, not every school has this option- especially in an urban setting. 

Given these challenges, the implementation of the exact GMS model may not be possible for most schools. On the positive side, students can still greatly benefit from small scale programs-whether that means roof top gardening, raised beds above concrete, potted gardens indoors, or field trips to an off-sight location.

Why are gardens so important in schools specifically?

1) The social factor in schools make them a unique learning environment compared to a child’s home. Kids spend many hours with their friends socializing and building emotional connections. In school they work alongside their friends to grow produce and cook with the fresh ingredients. Because the cool kids cook and eat vegetables too they won’t feel ostracized or isolated for eating healthy foods. Given the #1 reason people stop being vegan is because of social pressures, it’s an important emotional hurdle for kids to bypass.  

2) Some schools might have more resources to build a garden than the parents do at home. Schools can hire experienced personnel, and allocate time and space to its construction. Parents can put in a lot of effort to make sure kids eat well, but having a green thumb to grow the food is another matter. 

3) Getting kids outside and interacting with nature is one of the best learning tools. It’s a perfect complement to coursework in nutrition, botany, life cycle, and environmental studies, etc. Kids can concurrently observe those lesson plans in the real world and experience the sensation of growing a living organism.

Impact of the garden program on the student body

Bottom line, when a school starts up a garden program it becomes a partner in encouraging kids to build healthy eating habits, while simultaneously enriching the learning environment. 

Claire Gile, a middle school student at GMS, says she is “more mindful of her food choices and portion size” and “the experience [of learning to grow food from seed to harvest] taught her the value of fresh whole foods and the time and energy it takes to grow it.” As a personal project, she used her knowledge from the schools garden curriculum to grow bell and jalapeño peppers to feed her guinea pigs at home.  

The garden program also benefits the kids health and academic performance. The children’s obesity rate at the school is near a statistical 0%, compared to 15% in NC at the state level. 

Study after study reaffirms the necessity to eat nutritious food in order for kids to concentrate in the classroom. If kids are hungry or hyped up on processed foods they can’t focus, which dramatically lowers their academic performance. Because GMS students have access to nutritious foods they are better prepared to handle the rigorous course work in the classroom- which is evident in their strong test scores and secondary school placements. 

To find out more about GMS garden curriculum visit there blog here.

Does your children’s school have a garden program? Leave a comment below to acknowledge their efforts and the benefits you have seen at home as a result.