How can school children improve self-esteem and academic test scores while gaining a positive view toward healthy foods? The answer takes root in something as simple as a school garden, according to West Virginia University Extension experts.

“Encouraging children to try new, healthy foods and to take an active role in learning are just some of the ways school gardening helps students in West Virginia,” said Chuck Talbott, WVU Extension Service Putnam County agriculture and natural resources agent.

WVU Extension Service, in partnership with area schools and organizations, is pioneering the use of gardens as an effective learning tool.

WVU Extension Service Master Gardeners are a key component of the school gardening curriculum, contributing 1,000 hours of service to the gardening program in Putnam County schools.

“Master Gardeners are a vital resource. They educate and assist with all aspects of the project to help make it successful,” explained Talbott.

“Not only do they help with constructing the gardens, but they teach classes on proper gardening techniques and care which helps ensure success with school gardens.”

John Porter, WVU Extension agriculture and natural resources agent for Kanawha County, helps drive school gardening curriculum in Kanawha County schools by collaborating with organizations like the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, Americorps VISTA and Keys 4 Healthy Kids.

A partnership with the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition led to establishment of wvschoolgardens.org – a school garden curriculum and resource website for teachers.

With the backing of grants from partner organizations, schools receive rain gauges, kitchen scales and hydrometers for use with gardening projects. The materials help enable math and science learning through the gardening curriculum.

“Out-of-the-classroom learning through gardens is almost limitless,” explained Porter. “We empower educators by providing them with the resources and tools they need.”

Gardening curriculum branches into other school subjects, and offers unexpected benefits. Schools integrate reading, math, nutrition, language arts and more into gardening curriculums.

Youth learn the fundamental concepts of gardening like temperature control, soil moisture, ventilation and watering. They also learn new vocabulary words associated with gardening, like condensation, harvest and humidity.

At George Washington Elementary in Eleanor, students use a shared, school garden and a high tunnel greenhouse with more than a dozen raised-bed gardens. The amount of garden space allows each class from pre-k to fifth grade to maintain and learn from their own garden.

Talbott explains that harvest time in the garden is one of the most interactive and engaging learning phases of the school gardening curriculum.

“It’s the point where children recognize the concepts they’ve learned, and they experience the outcome of that learning,” added Talbott.

“Kids are so eager to pull up turnips and beets from their school garden. Harvesting the plants is the most exciting time for kids, and it’s rewarding to see them enthusiastic about agriculture,” he remarked.

Produce from school gardens is sold to the school cafeteria and the profits gained from the sale directly fund school gardening projects and curriculum.

Not only does selling the produce help keep the program functioning, but it allows children to try new, healthy foods which they might not have shown any interest in before the gardening program. This can lead to healthier eating habits and a healthier lifestyle for youth involved in the school gardening curriculums.

“The farm to school method of educating students helps to create a self-sustaining program where both the school and students benefit,” said Talbott.

Through school gardening curriculum, kids are learning where their food comes from, and are gaining an appreciation and knowledge of why that is important.

“School gardening is fundamental to help shape the future of agriculture in West Virginia,” Porter said. “Getting youth involved with agriculture can help secure local and statewide future food production in West Virginia.”

In total, Talbott and Porter have directly impacted nearly 2,000 students with school gardening curriculum in schools across Putnam and Kanawha counties.

Outcomes of school gardening curriculum are noteworthy. Math and science test scores at George Washington Elementary significantly improved after the school gardening program was implemented.

“We didn’t realize the possibilities that school gardening would bring to our students,” said Mary Beth Myers, George Washington Elementary School principal.

Myers explains that she has not only seen the remarkable impact school gardening has had on the students’ academic performance, but has also witnessed increased self-confidence of children who struggled academically.

“Kids love the responsibility that comes with a school garden. I’ve seen many of them become passionate about what they’ve learned, and proud of themselves for learning it,” she explained.

The high success of the school gardening curriculum at George Washington Elementary has led to the beginning-phase construction of an outdoor classroom shelter that complements the school’s high tunnel, and serves as a place for kids to learn outside near the gardens.

“With the help of WVU Extension Service, the community and parent volunteers, our students’ academic performance has increased, healthier eating habits have been learned and self-esteem has improved,” Myers adds.

This is the second year of the school gardening curriculum at George Washington Elementary, and learning from school gardens will continue, explained Myers.

“We don’t always know what will be learned from our school garden, but we can’t wait to learn something new this year,” she said.

WVU Extension agents hope to spark interest for other counties in West Virginia to incorporate gardening into their school curriculums.

“School gardening not only educates youth about agriculture and farming, but also serves as a way to educate about a variety of other school subject areas and life skills,” Talbott said.

To learn more about the WVU Extension Service or the Master Gardener program, visit www.ext.wvu.edu.

For a century, WVU Extension Service has educated and empowered West Virginians through the presence of University faculty and experts in all 55 counties of the state. With trusted research and local experts, WVU Extension improves communities with programs in the areas of Agriculture and Natural Resources; 4-H and Youth Development; Families and Health; and Community, Economic and Workforce Development to make a positive impact in the lives of West Virginians, every day.

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CONTACT: Cassie Waugh, WVU Extension Service
304.293.8735, Cassie.Waugh@mail.wvu.edu

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