Planting a school garden into elementary school activities can teach about nutrition while boosting physical activity and exercise.
A two-year Cornell University study of 12 elementary schools in New York state found that children at schools with gardens were more physically active at school than before their schools had gardens. What’s more, children who gardened at school were substantially less sedentary at home and elsewhere than their counterparts.
With nearly one in three American children overweight or obese, school gardens could be a simple, low-cost way to get kids more active, said environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, professor of design and environmental analysis in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.
“This is the first true experiment to measure the effects of school gardens on children’s physical activity, and we found a significant increase,” Wells said. “It is notable that in our intervention, kids were only spending an hour or two per week in the gardens, yet there was a significant difference in physical activity. The findings suggest that if schools embraced gardens further and integrated them into lesson plans, there might be an even greater effect.”
The Cornell research team used surveys and accelerometers worn by children for three consecutive school days on four separate occasions to measure changes in kids’ physical activity during the school day. In addition, surveys captured children’s general activity and sedentary patterns—including time at home.
Learning in a garden induced children to be “significantly more physically active” compared to an indoor class, said Beth Myers, a doctoral student in the field of design and environmental analysis who assisted with the study. On average, children sat for 84 percent and stood for 10 percent of an indoor class. During garden lessons, kids moved about much more, sitting for only 15 percent of the time, with the majority of their time spent standing, walking, and kneeling.
Wells, who has studied how access to nature boosts kids’ mental and physical health, said the findings show that “school gardens are an effective way to begin to nudge kids toward their 60 minutes of daily activity,” a level recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama’s national “Let’s Move” campaign.
Given the relatively modest scope of this intervention, Wells said the next step would be to “design ways to make it easy for schools to adopt garden-based lessons” more widely into their curricula.