Academic journal article Human Ecology

Using Gardens to Plant the Seeds of Good Health, Education

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Using Gardens to Plant the Seeds of Good Health, Education

Article excerpt

At dozens of low-income schools spread across New York, Arkansas, Iowa, and Washington, elementary students are growing fruits and vegetables--and their minds.

The novel Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth project, launched in April 2011 with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and likely to reach as many as 2,500 students in 50 schools, seeks to encourage young children to eat more fruits and vegetables at school and at home, to boost their activity levels, and to enhance their knowledge of nutrition and food systems.

Nancy Wells, associate professor of design and environmental analysis, directs the project's research team and is leading its randomized study to measure the impact of gardens on key outcomes. The project is supported by a network of nutrition, horticulture, and youth development educators at Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) in New York and extension counterparts in the three other participating states. The research team also includes Charles Henderson, senior research associate in human development, and Jennifer Wilkins, senior extension associate in nutritional sciences.

In addition to working in the gardens, teachers are making the gardens an outdoor classroom, where students can learn about math and science amid rows of vegetables. For instance, in one 4th grade class in Rockland County, teachers reported that students practiced math concepts by measuring the heights of plants and totaling blossoms in the garden.

Wells, an environmental psychologist whose past research has shown the positive impact of nature on children's health and cognitive functioning, is excited about the many potential benefits of the gardens.

"It is a rare intervention that has the potential to affect both diet and physical activity," Wells said. "What's unusual and exciting about the gardens is that they may be a very potent intervention in terms of childhood obesity, especially because they could affect both sides of the energy balance equation."

An early challenge for Wells's research team, which includes Cornell undergraduate and graduate students, was determining how to objectively measure students' meals and movement, which would be compared in schools with gardens versus control groups at schools without gardens.

They couldn't expect young children to keep accurate food records, nor could they independently observe every child at lunch. …

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