By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 March 2012)
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.
School Gardens Provide Hands-on, Interdisciplinary Learning Opportunities
A major problem with the current education system is that subjects are learned in isolation, both from one another and from the real-world contexts in which knowledge and problem-solving skills must be applied. The great thing about school gardens is that they connect various curricular areas in a real-world setting.
There are plenty of fun learning opportunities for children of all ages in the garden. Young children can:
- Identify geometric shapes and count seeds (math)
- Learn the myths of various cultures associated with gardens and plants (social studies)
- Create garden maps (geography)
- Read and follow simple directions for planting (language arts)
- Learn which plants they can grow to attract birds and butterflies (science)
- Draw or paint the garden, flowerpots, and plant labels (art)
Examples of garden-related educational activities for older children include:
- Taking measurements and creating graphs and charts (mathematics)
- Learning about the cultural significance of plants grown in other places (social studies)
- Examining the effects of regional climate on plants (geography)
- Writing research reports on garden-related themes (language arts)
- Having contests to see who can grow the best (largest, tastiest, most attractive) produce or flowers by learning about soil conditions and plant care (science)
- Designing templates and carving pumpkins they have grown (art)
Most garden learning activities integrate multiple subject domains. For example, having students grow plants in various mediums or subjecting them to various conditions and reporting on the results covers the following subject areas:
- Science (conducting experiments)
- Mathematics (counting, taking measurements, determining percentages)
- Language arts (writing reports)
- Visual arts (drawing diagrams)
Social skills such as cooperation can also be developed by having students work garden patches in teams.
School Gardens Meet the Needs of Diverse Learners
Howard Gardner, originator of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, asserts that there are eight primary intelligences:
- Linguistic (words)
- Logical-Mathematical (numbers and reasoning)
- Spatial (images)
- Bodily-Kinaesthetic (movement)
- Musical (music)
- Interpersonal (others)
- Intrapersonal (self)
- Naturalistic (nature)
Students are likely to be strong in one or more of these domains and weak in others. Therefore, many students are poorly served by an educational model that emphasizes textbook learning and paper-and-pencil-based testing because they fiilter knowledge through the narrow channel of language. Not all students learn easily by listening or reading, or can effectively represent what they know via writing. Many learn best by doing and can best indicate their knowledge by creating or demonstrating.
Lesson plans based on school gardens can give various types of learners the opportunity to work with their strengths and improve in areas of weakness, thus increasing student engagement. While the linguistically gifted will enjoy writing reports on plants, the spatial learners will have fun drawing pictures or otherwise representing the garden and planning its design. The bodily-kinaesthetics will have the opportunity to move and engage in physical tasks, those gifted in mathematics will be able to count and measure well, students strong in interpersonal skills will appreciate the chance to garden in groups, and anyone with naturalistic intelligence is bound to enjoy working with plants. A creative teacher may find ways to link musical and intrapersonal skills to the garden as well.
School Gardens Encourage Teamwork and Responsibility
School gardens provide an excellent opportunity to teach responsibility because failure to complete required tasks such as watering will cause a student’s plants to die. Thus, students with school gardens learn how to consistently care for something, and they also learn that if they don’t, there are unpleasant consequences.
School gardens also build teamwork skills, which are critical in the modern information economy where most lucrative jobs require the ability to work in groups. Thus, tending a school garden can help to develop key skills that will increase a student’s employability later on.
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 step-by-step instructions on how to start a garden at your school, see How to Create a School Garden. For eco-friendly garden ideas, see How to Create a More Environmentally Friendly Garden. For safe, non-toxic plant protection solutions, see Natural Garden Pest Control. For a full list of garden articles, visit the Gardening page.
- Bateman, B.; Warner, J.O.; Hutchinson, E.; Dean, T.; Rowlandson, P.; Gant, C.; Grundy, J.; Fitzgerald, C.; & Stevenson, J. (2004). “The Effects of a Double Blind, Placebo Controlled, Artificial Food Colourings and Benzoate Preservative Challenge on Hyperactivity in a General Population Sample of Preschool Children.” Archives of Disease in Childhood. 89:512-515.
- Bergsund, M. (2009). “The Benefits of a School Garden.” MyHealthySchool.com.
- Center for Ecoliteracy. (2010). “Hooked on Sugar.” Ecoliteracy.org.
- DesMaisons, K. (1999). Potatoes Not Prozac. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
- GlobeGazette.com. (10 October 2010). “Schools Encourage Healthier Eating.”
- Greene, A., MD. (2010). “Brain Food for Your Kids: How Do You Score?” OrganicValley.Coop.
- GreenHeart Education. (2010). “The Value of School Gardens.” Greenhearted.org.
- Keeley, J., & Fields, M. (2004). “Case Study: Appleton Central Alternative Charter High School’s Nutrition and Wellness Program.” Better Food, Better Behavior. Battle Creek, MK: W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
- LifeCycles. (n.d.). “Questions About School Gardens.” LifeCyclesProject.ca.
- Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
- Main, E. (25 March 2010). “A Kids’ Garden Grows Healthier Eating Habits.” Rodale.com.
- National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). (2010). Fact Sheet: Children’s Health and Nature. Washington, DC: NEEF.
- State Education & Environment Roundtable (SEER). (2000). California Student Assessment Project: The Effects of Environment-Based Education on Student Achievement [PDF]. Poway, CA: SEER.
- The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation. (2000). Environment-Based Education: Creating High Performance Schools and Students [PDF]. Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative (PEEC), PEECWorks.org.
- United States Botanic Garden and Chicago Botanic Garden School Garden Wizard. (n.d.). “Learn in the Garden.” SchoolGardenWizard.org.