When people talk about school gardens, they often look for metrics, metrics that they hope will “prove” that having gardens at school causally increases grades.  In a testing-centered curriculum, metrics of increased test scores are the gold standard for implementing an educational program. Do school gardens improve test scores? The short answer is : yes. The National Science Teacher’s Association found that students scored significantly higher on test scores when they were part of a school garden program, regardless of gender or other social factors.

If school gardens help raise test scores for students, and test scores are used to measure educational progress, why doesn’t every school have a school garden? Or more than one garden?

That question is tough to answer, and emerging social dynamics in the field of educational resources and funding seem to play a role. In short, though, the presence of school gardens and their included curriculum might be more of a signifier of socioeconomic factors and school district functionality rather than test scores or funding.

One columnist writing about school gardens in 2010 claims that because gardening is experimental, it’s not appropriate for schools:

The need for better research on the impact of garden-based learning is at the heart of criticism of the movement. In a scathing article in The Atlantic in 2010, Caitlin Flanagan described the trend as “a giant experiment, one that is predicated on a set of assumptions that are largely unproved, even unexamined.”

“That no one is calling foul on this is only one manifestation of the way the new Food Hysteria has come to dominate and diminish our shared cultural life,” Flanagan contended.

Aside from the fact that laboratories and experiments are generally considered a part of schooling and a normal facet of human exploration, critics of the school gardening movement miss the point if they are looking solely to see if having a garden at a school raises grades.  Why is it so unimportant for children to taste good, fresh food at school? Why would experimentation with growing be suddenly considered a form of non-academia? The columnist goes on to comment that it’s teacher work-load that prevents teachers from actively providing lessons outdoors that relate to mandated curricula.

Another challenge that skeptics point to is that teachers are already so overwhelmed with demands on their time — thanks to a number of factors, including standardized testing and educational standards outlined by Common Core and Next Generation — that it becomes difficult to implement garden-based learning in a meaningful way.

Meaningful way? Gardening must be meaningful from a math perspective, or it’s not useful? If there is no science lesson accompanying the garden space, then the garden space is useless? That’s like saying that all children live in a vacuum and have no interaction or knowledge of their natural world unless their teacher tells them what they can look for.  Children are natural observers, and teachers don’t necessarily have to work to make a math lesson out of gardening–it comes, well, naturally.

How much soil do we need to buy to fill a raised bed with dirt? (If you buy soil as opposed to making it with compost, as some schools do with lunchroom waste.) Perimeter is the amount of fencing needed. Surface area is the planting surface, and cubic feet is the manner in which soil is measured and sold in bags in stores. Math application in “real life” is not difficult, and, in fact, many people are searching for that link between their instruction and life’s applications. (I am reminded of my mother-in-law who said that maybe if she had ever learned that “solving for x” meant telling her how much interest she could earn with savings or pay when taking out a loan, she might have paid more attention in math class. She never knew it applied to her life.) I have also taught children how to measure angles to figure out the length of wood needed to build small nesting boxes, basic geometry, and how to figure out how much produce their garden bed produced over a season based on space.

Trying to equate gardening in schools with increased test scores is a symptom of low socioeconomic educational systems who must struggle for test scores to the exclusion of all else, and then the inevitable conclusion is that if students are low performing, they don’t deserve time for something enjoyable or non-test related. School gardens, then, are the economic equalizer.

Even if school gardens provide only a place for unstructured play, students in low performing schools deserve to have a safe place to enjoy unstructured play as a necessary right of human development. Unstructured play is so important that even the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a public service announcement stating that unstructured play is necessary for children.  Failure to provide school gardens could, in that sense, then be considered a form of economic discrimination against low-performing and underfunded students, which are predominantly minority.

When we expound on the benefits of recess, and there are many (as backed most recently by a Stanford study, among many), why not include gardening ? Recess is not an academic subject but has been found to be important to students, so why assume that unless there is a direct academic course built around school gardens that students won’t benefit?

Realistically, school gardens, with a focus on exploration, experimentation and growing have the capacity to increase green space and safe spaces at schools. Green spaces are important to we humans, as we are animals, too. Green spaces convey a sense of value, of quality, and demonstrate pride in an environment, all elements that would certainly benefit schools. Studies of green spaces have been directly tied to economic benefits, much like the push try to equate school gardens with increased test scores, but the research is compelling:

Views of plants increase job satisfaction. Employees with an outside view of plants experience less job pressure and greater job satisfaction than workers viewing man-made objects or having no outside view. They also report fewer headaches and other ailments than workers without the view.11

Nature increases worker productivity. Psychologists have found that access to plants and green spaces provides a sense of rest and allows workers to be more productive.12

Landscaping renews business districts. Greening of business districts increases community pride and positive perception of an area, drawing customers to the businesses.13

Quality landscaping means quality goods. A recent study found that consumers would be willing to pay, on average, a 12% premium for goods purchased in retail establishments that are accompanied by quality landscaping.14

Why would these benefits not extend to schools and work ethics, pride, and quality?Simply put, there is a fear that if the gardens don’t raise test scores for low-performing students that the students don’t deserve to have anything else, and it’s a pervasive assignment for low-performing schools, usually in under privileged areas.

It’s not that school gardens have no impact on academics–they do, and in positive ways.

Some studies that have taken a closer look at the direct academic impact of school gardens have also had encouraging results. In 2013, Dilafruz Williams and P. Scott Dixon conducted a comprehensive review of 20 years of literature on programs of this nature. Of 22 studies included in the review, 93 percent reported improved student performance in science, 80 percent saw improvement in math and 72 percent noted improvement in language arts. Williams and Dixon’s analysis also noted, however, that more rigorous research on the topic would be beneficial.

It’s just that providing fresh food and unstructured play are human rights for children, not just an academic experiment, and school gardens can provide both. Gardening is rewarding for children, in any capacity, and the students who most need a safe place to play and experiment are often minorities and might only have that ability at school.

We are Nature’s creatures, after all. We can’t exist without Nature. In fact, recent studies have determined that children’s rates of vision problems are increasing because children don’t get access to enough sunlight. Our indoor lifestyle is literally causing our children to be nearsighted.  So when does the discussion move from “rewarding” our children with Nature  to recognizing that things like school gardens are a necessary form of an economic equalizer for our most precarious students and all students?