Research Summary

Predicting teacher likelihood to use school gardens: A case study

How to encourage elementary teachers to use school gardens as a teaching complement

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

School gardens can be used as learning spaces to complement the elementary school curriculum and can have many beneficial impacts on children’s development. Previous research shows that garden-based learning (GBL) can benefit children by improving their physical and mental health, social and problem-solving skills, and academic performance. Barriers exist to the use of school gardens as learning spaces, such as lack of funding, inexperience, lack of garden knowledge and inadequate teacher training. A better understanding of how and why teachers use GBL may help increase its use. This study attempted to determine the likelihood of an elementary teacher using school gardens as a supplement for their classroom curriculum.

This study is based on the theory of planned behavior (TPB), which states that positive norms, the attitude towards a specific behavior, together with the individual’s perceived control over the action, can shape his or her intentions and behaviors. When applied to GBL, the TPB posits that teachers’ attitudes towards using a school garden, how they perceive the norms of the garden, and their sense of control over using the garden could predict their intent of using a school garden as part of the curriculum.

The authors conducted their research at an elementary school in Athens, Georgia, with a fifteen-year-old school garden that is managed by volunteer teachers. For this study, an online survey based on the TPB was distributed to all 30 teachers in the school. The survey collected demographic information and data on teachers’ intent and attitudes towards using the garden, and perceived amount of control over using the gardens in their curriculum. This survey also contained a section measuring the norms present in the teaching environment. The researchers used statistics to analyze the data.

In total, 67% of teachers that received the survey responded. All participants were female and had been teaching for an average of 16.5 years, with the newest teacher having taught for 5 years and the oldest for 28 years. Data from this study shows that teachers with more experience on the job (10-19 years) or those who gardened or farmed in their free time had a stronger intention of using the garden in their curriculum. About half of the respondents (45%) mentioned they gardened or farmed in their free time. On average, teachers felt it was moderately difficult to include the use of gardens in the curriculum and felt they had moderate control over the use of the garden.

The researchers caution that it is not possible to generalize results to a broader population of teachers. This study had a limited sample size formed by only female teachers and included one single elementary school. A study with a larger sample size (formed by both male and female teachers) or scope, for instance teachers for older students or those teaching different subject matters, may better help understand and overcome barriers to the use of school gardens.

The researchers suggest that teachers who garden in their free time become mentors to teachers with less experience in order to increase experience and garden knowledge. Additionally, researchers mention that it is possible to increase intent by providing a positive environment and providing administrative and peer support to the teachers. They suggest that those teachers who garden or farm in their free time recommend norms and inspire attitudes to increase the likelihood of garden use.

The authors recommend more teacher training on the use of school gardens and on ways to include GBL in their curriculum, which could be provided by outside organizations, school garden coordinators, administrators or teachers with garden experience. Another suggestion is the designation of a point person or “garden captain,” who could increase the likelihood of teachers using the garden by providing support, training and even creating opportunities for partnerships. Finally, the authors highlight the need for teacher incentives to use school gardens. For example, recognition from the school administrators and peers through mentions in the school bulletin board or newsletters. This recognition could encourage positive attitudes and norms for the use of school gardens and inclusion of school gardens in the curriculum.

The Bottom Line

Though garden-based learning (GBL) can be beneficial in elementary schools, barriers exist to implementation. After surveying teachers at a Georgia elementary school that has had a garden for over a decade, the researchers found that more experience teaching and gardening increased the likelihood of a teacher using the school garden in his or her curriculum. The findings indicate that comfort in a garden and incorporating gardening into lessons were key factors predicting whether a teacher would implement GBL. To increase the use of GBL in schools, teachers should receive more training in garden-based learning, experienced teachers who have gardening knowledge and skills should mentor other teachers, and incentives should be created for teachers to use school gardens.