Schoolyard gardens

Promoting children’s physical and mental well-being.

Obesity is the fastest growing health concern in the United States. Unhealthy diets and increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to this epidemic. Only 2% of children in the U.S. eat a healthy diet consistent with federal nutrition recommendations, and only 15% of all elementary-aged children eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, according to Pediatrics the article titled “Food intakes of US children and adolescents compared with recommendations.” Minority, rural and poor populations account for disproportionately high levels of obesity.

Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder”, suggests there is a direct link between the rise in physical and mental health issues in children, and their lack of connection to the natural world. Considering that children today spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation, it is logical that their overall understanding of the natural world is in decline.

How can we address these issues in Michigan? Within educational environments, schoolyard gardens are emerging as unique venues for introducing nutrition education, improving healthy choices, and reversing sedentary lifestyle trends. Research has demonstrated that eating patterns developed during childhood are the best indicators of adult eating habits, therefore providing nutrition education and instilling healthy food choices at an early age can serve to promote lifelong physical and mental well-being. However, these concepts must be reinforced at home to be effective. Research from the University of Minnesota suggests that providing families with the knowledge and ability to improve their food choices and eating habits is a key factor toward enhancing healthy adolescent food choices. Actively engaging parents through family meals, cooking demonstrations, and other community events will likely extend healthy food choices from schools into households.

Schoolyard gardens provide other social benefits as well. They can serve as outdoor classrooms, social gathering areas for families, and offer opportunities for multi-cultural education.

Over time, we have lost the connection to where our food comes from. It is time to reverse that trend. What could be better than helping kids grow and harvest their own tomatoes, onions, peppers, and herbs, and then watch them prepare and eat salsa?

Alice Waters, a prominent chef and one of the first proponents of schoolyard gardens, suggests: “A curriculum designed to educate both the senses and the conscience–a curriculum based on sustainable agriculture–will teach children their moral obligation to be caretakers and stewards of the finite resources of our planet. And it will teach them the joy of the table, the pleasures of real work, and the meaning of community.”

For information on how to start a schoolyard garden please visit here or ask a member of the Michigan State University Extension Community Food System Workgroup.