School gardening programmes are increasingly popular with several high profile initiatives to encourage and support activity; examples include Jamie Oliver’s Kitchen Garden Project and the Royal Horticultural Society’s Campaign for School Gardening. The RHS aim to support teachers to “develop a sustainable garden for young people’s learning, health and wellbeing”. With so much interest in school gardening there was a need to collate evidence to assess what works, in what circumstances and why.
Systematically reviewing the findings from 40 research papers the team, led by Heather Ohly, found some evidence that school garden programmes could boost children’s knowledge and awareness of nutrition, as well as improving their willingness to try new foods and healthier eating habits. School gardening could also provide opportunities for physical activity in both children and adults, and provide feelings of achievement, satisfaction and pride. School gardens appear to have particular benefits for children who have complex needs (behavioural, emotional, or educational) and do not thrive in an academic environment.
The synthesis of the qualitative data provided contextual information about which aspects of school gardening may be important. A key finding was that there appeared to be a feedback loop where the perceived benefits of school gardening meant that children were motivated to continue gardening and adults (teachers, parents and volunteers) were motivated to continue to support the school gardening programmes:
We’ve got to start with these kids now, so that when they become the grandparents, they’re modelling correctly for the kids. We’re probably not going to change the values of today’s elderly and today’s parents, but if we begin with the kids we’re going to have a chance over time to change the health and wellness of the population. (Administrator reported in Ahmed at al 2011.)
It makes me feel good inside, all fresh, good… I enjoy touching the soil, the plants. You can feel them…I feel part of them…Yes, it makes me feel that I can care more about things… Being more gentle, caring more, the plants are like people. (Student, age 17 reported in Chawla et al. 2014).
The review also considered common factors that help a project to be effective and sustainable. It found that local community involvement and integration of gardening activities into the school curriculum could support success, while a lack of funding and over reliance on volunteers might threaten long-term viability.
However, the review highlighted significant limitations in our understanding of the effects school gardens might have. Numerical evidence was poor, in some cases relying on a child’s self-reported data which may be affected by social desirability bias, especially in school settings.
Future research should recognise the fact that school gardens are complex interventions and that appropriate study designs, guided by logic models, and using robust measures are required.