When a soccer ball lands in the garden, flattening a stand of newly sprouted peas, or an overzealous weeder pulls out a row of seedlings by mistake, many gardeners would be tempted to scream. After all, growing food is hard work. When something sets you back, isn’t that a negative thing?

Not if you’re in a school garden, where one of the many classes across North America are growing vegetables as part of the curriculum. Then those little setbacks are opportunities for learning.

“The garden is a wonderful place where children learn to come up with solutions to challenges they might not otherwise experience,” says Lisa Giroday, program manager for The Classroom Gardener, who, along with colleague Megan Zeni, helps schools transform schoolyards into dynamic outdoor learning environments. “And because nature is nature, things are never going to happen the way you think they will…lots of things come up in real time, and students have a chance to learn how to problem solve.”

Both Giroday and Zeni are passionate advocates for classroom gardens and their ability to transform a child’s educational experience. But providing opportunities for creative problem solving is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teaching kids how to have green thumbs.

After several decades of research into the effects of school gardens, social scientists and educators are starting to see the wide-ranging benefits that come from having green and growing spaces available to children at school. Some of these discoveries might surprise you.

Growing More Than Vegetables

Anyone who has ever spent time in a classroom knows the challenges that come with managing a group of children with different personalities and learning styles. Keeping everyone safe and on-task often comes with a long set of rules.

In the garden, children are usually freer to engage in what educators call risk assessment—activities that permit broader exploration, experimenting, and questioning. Says Giroday, “This idea really centers around how, when given the opportunity to use objects in a way that is not being restrained—and that is being inquiry-based and explorative—children develop the ability to self-regulate.”

Psychologists define self-regulation as the ability to act in your own long-term best interest, but self-regulation is also key to responding appropriately in social situations. Children unable to self-regulate may struggle to calm themselves down. They may also suffer from guilt or anxiety. Fortunately, garden programs can help.

“In an outdoor environment, where there’s the opportunity to climb on things, or jump off things, or use sharp tools, the ability to self-regulate is enhanced,” says Giroday, adding that time in the garden helps kids focus and pay attention, even after they’ve returned to a more traditional classroom. Watching bugs, digging into a raised garden bed or watering thirsty plants helps many children tune in and calm down.

young girl holding a dirt-covered knife in the garden

A Haven for Experiential Learning

This garden-as-respite model is particularly effective for kids who struggle academically.
Researchers in southeastern Spain observed its power when, over a six-year period, they studied the behaviour of at-risk and low performance high school students who attended a gardening program.

The result? Not only did their academic performance improve, the student dropout rate went from 30% to zero in some years. The students’ teachers also observed less disruption during class, along with improvements in self-confidence and self-motivation.

“Disruptive episode control improved significantly in the classroom, where teachers observed a decided improvement in students’ skills, self-esteem, and self-confidence,” said the study’s authors.

Students who attended schools with garden programs had higher math, reading, and science scores on standardized tests.

These statistics are supported by multiple studies looking at how school gardens affect classroom achievement. The results are hard to ignore.

Students who attend school garden programs as part of their science curriculum are more likely to enjoy their subjects, pay attention, and make connections to real life. They also score significantly higher on science achievement tests than students taught by traditional classroom methods.

But science is not the only subject school gardens improve. A Washington D.C. study conducted in 2016 found that fifth grade students who attended schools with garden programs had higher math, reading, and science scores on standardized tests. The majority of these positive associations remained even when adjustments were made for race and income.

So school garden programs can improve grades. The question is, why?

School Gardens and the Neural Connection

A theory known as the biophilia hypothesis posits that humans innately crave interactions with nature. Proponents of this theory have suggested that we’re drawn to living, natural shapes and symbols because such a connection once helped us survive. More recently, scientists in Barcelona have started to unravel a clearer reasoning behind that yearning: it appears that nature makes us smarter.

Their inquiry started more than three years ago, when researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health analyzed the brains of more than 2,200 children. Those who attended schools with “more greenness” had greater increases in working memory—and greater reductions in inattentiveness—than children who went to schools with less green space.

Fast forward to this year, and the researchers did a follow up study. This time they looked at 253 children who had “lifelong exposure to residential greenness.” It turns out that those who experienced long-term exposure to green spaces developed a greater volume of white and grey matter in the brain. And the location of the white and grey matter overlapped with those areas associated with higher scores on cognitive tests. In other words, the more brain matter kids had in this area, the better they achieved.

The study’s lead author, Dr.Payam Dadvand, summed up its results: “Our findings suggest that exposure to green space early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.”

Other Factors at Work in School Gardening Programs

Of course, children taking part in school garden programs aren’t just exposed to green spaces. They’re also exposed to fresh air and vegetables. Teaching children to love vegetables is a lifelong quest for many parents, and the correlation between eating healthy and learning optimally is well understood. Feed your body, feed your brain, right?

Except that’s not what’s happening for children. According to a 2014 report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007 and 2010, 93 percent of children didn’t meet dietary recommendations for vegetable intake from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. School gardens can (and do) help with that.

Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr is a nutrition researcher and fellow from the University at Davis. In an interview with Parents, she noted how kids who refused to try a handful of vegetables before gardening (including peas, spinach, and kale) were more likely to ask for these vegetables after growing them at school. Even better, Zidenberg-Cherr found that these healthy eating habits were likely to stick with children for the long-term.

“Many children who refused to try spinach before they grew it were now asking their parents to buy it to make at home,” Zidenberg-Cherr said.

Between 2007 and 2010, 93 percent of children didn’t meet dietary recommendations for vegetable intake. School gardens can (and do) help with that.

Granting organizations across North America now recognize the powerful contribution school gardens can make to a child’s overall health. Whole Kids Foundation, an initiative of Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, operates as an independent, non-profit organization supporting schools and other non-profit organizations working to create a deeper connection between kids and food. The foundation views school gardens as an important way to improve children’s nutrition and wellness.

“Every garden grant creates an opportunity for kids to learn more about where their food comes from, gain a deeper understanding of the connection between what we eat and how we feel, and put all of that learning into action as they make daily choices for meals and snacks,” said Nona Evans, president and executive director of Whole Kids Foundation.

Apparently it’s true: kids who grow vegetables eat vegetables, at home and at school. School gardens can not only help children learn by growing brain cells, they can also introduce children to nutritious foods and build healthy, lifelong habits—the very foundation for learning.

School Gardens: The Perfect Context

Back at The Classroom Gardener, Lisa Giroday and Megan Zeni are sharing their love of growing with kids. Their program is unique to their community, but they hope to expand in the future. Currently their organization works to empower teachers to use gardens as outdoor classrooms, believing that “the entire curriculum can be taught in the garden.”

In addition to developmental benefits, the Giroday and Zeni see school gardens as places where children can work out relationships, learn boundaries, practise storytelling, and develop empathy.

Says Giroday, summing up the feelings that many educators share, “Ultimately we see the school garden as a fantastic vehicle for such a wide range of benefits for children. It really is just a vehicle that provides the perfect context for all learning.”

What if Your School Doesn’t Have a Garden?

Many organizations across North America now provide startup funding and ongoing education to help schools realize their gardening dreams. The following is a list of organizations that can help.

United States
American Heart Association: The American Heart Association has a “Teaching Gardens” program for grades one through five. Eligible schools receive materials for planting day — including garden beds, soil, seedlings and plants — along with cooking demonstrations, lesson plans, and a Teaching Garden Toolkit.
Annie’s Grants for Gardens: At least 75 students must be actively involved in garden projects receiving grants. Applications open in spring and fall of each year.
Healthy Planet: Healthy Planet US has a goal to see a garden in every American school. They offer a variety of programs for schools across the United States looking to add or expand edible gardens.
Big Green: Big green offers support for low income schools to start or expand a teaching garden. A list of eligible districts is available on their website.
Budding Botanist: Each grant recipient will receive a package of tools and educational materials valued at $500 along with a check for $2,500 to spend on the materials needed to install a new or expand an existing school garden
Food Corps: Food Corps delivers garden education programs in high-need schools. They help connect children with healthier foods in schools so they can reach their full potential.
KidsGardening: KidsGardening is a leading resource for garden-based educators across the country. They maintain an extensive list of funding programs for school gardens.
Slow Food USA: Slow Food USA maintains a list of grants available to schools interested in building or expanding their garden. The site also includes excellent educational and start-up resources.
Whole Kids Foundation: The Garden Grant program provides a $2000 grant to support a new or existing edible school garden.

The Classroom Gardener: Serving the Lower Mainland, BC, The Classroom Gardener supports teachers and students with a cross-curricular, on-site school garden learning experience.
Evergreen Foundation: Evergreen has compiled an extensive list of gardening grant projects in Canada.
Whole Kids Foundation: Created in partnership with FoodCorps, the garden grant program provides $2000 for new or existing edible garden projects.


Ozer, E.J. (2006). The effects of school gardens on students and schools: conceptualization and considerations for maximizing healthy development. Health Education Behavior. Dec; 34 (6).

Payam Dadvand, et al. (2018). The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 126, No. 2.

Rashawn Ray et al. (2016). School Gardens in the City: Does Environmental Equity Help Close the Achievement Gap? Department of Sociology. Accessed online via the University of Maryland.

Ruiz-Gallardo, José & Verde, Alonso & Valdés, Arturo. (2013). Garden-Based Learning: An Experience With ‘At Risk’ Secondary Education Students. The Journal of Environmental Education. 44.

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