Research Summary

The force of gardening: Investigating children's learning in a food garden

Expanding Our Understanding of the Benefits of School Gardens

Australian Journal of Environmental Education
2015

School gardens have rapidly risen in popularity within the sphere of environmental education because of their myriad benefits to health, environment, and the learning system more broadly. This is often because many school gardens are designed with an overall progressive approach to learning and, therefore, hold great potential as an alternative learning space. Many existing school-garden studies emphasize benefits related to health and education, as well as to the well-being of students. They highlight benefits related to teaching how food is cultivated, the way it affects our bodies, and the functions and impacts of agricultural systems on the environment. This study, however, expands on the prior literature using a lens that accentuates the reciprocity in encounters between human and nonhuman entities and forces. The authors use a new materialism approach as a framework for understanding how children’s experiences are shaped by—and help shape—the garden environment beyond the topic of food.

During a typical gardening class, children explore the space, observe biological processes, pick up objects, and build structures. The new materialism perspective describes all of those encounters as intra-actions, rather than interactions. The term intra-actions refers to the idea that two entities simultaneously influence each other when in contact and, as a result, those two entities become different versions of themselves. In other words, while humans are capable of altering animate and inanimate aspects of the natural world around them, they may, in turn, be transformed as well.

Using the new materialism approach as a guiding framework, this study examined the role of food gardens at three Australian primary schools with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability education. The authors collected data from 53 children over four years. Data sources included the children’s own stories about their favorite locations within the garden, photographs of the garden, and maps of their ideas for the garden. The researchers also collected data through observing five gardening lessons at each of the schools. In the authors’ final report, they analyzed three photographs that depicted different activities in each of the three school gardens, and they paired those photographs with corresponding interviews describing the scene in question.

The three photographs portrayed children building a trellis out of bamboo, standing around the edge of a sunflower maze, and building a cubbyhole from broken branches around a tree trunk. Each scene provided an example of how both the human and nonhuman entities were changed by the process of intra-action. In the trellis example, the bamboo was physically modified when it was woven and lashed into a permanent structure. Through the intra-active encounter, the children were also changed as they learned about the properties of bamboo, the biological benefits of a trellis, related engineering principles, and how to work cooperatively. Similarly, the maze embodied the notion of reciprocity: the children distributed the sunflower seeds while the sunflowers taught the children about beauty and adventure. In the cubbyhole, the children transformed the branches from a lifeless form on the ground into an inventive structure. Because of the benefits of the natural world, the children were then able to use this place as a site for self-transformation through games and imagination.

Through these examples, the authors concluded that the nonhuman forces in the garden setting were influential factors in how children emerged from the experience. The authors concluded that intra-action with these entities can help children develop knowledge beyond a narrow scope of how humans benefit from food production; children can also develop a greater sense of connection with all living things through intra-actions. This perspective is a key piece in beginning to understand the ethics of sustainable living. The authors’ findings are significant because they show that the educational rewards of school gardens reach beyond helping children develop an understanding of food and food systems. The mutual intra-action between children and the natural world can foster a vision of human and nonhuman entities co-existing sustainably.

The Bottom Line

School gardens are important sites not only for teaching about food and food systems, but also for expanding young people’s understanding of the connection between human and nonhuman entities. Within those settings and using creative interactions such as storytelling, games, and imaginative play, young children can develop an intra-active relationship with gardens that helps them connect with human and nonhuman organisms. Developing this connection can help students become more aware of the relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds as well as understand and embrace the ethics of sustainable living.