The impact of garden-based learning on student understanding of relationships and decolonization

McVittie, J., Datta, R., Kayira, J., & Anderson, V. (2019). Relationality and decolonisation in children and youth garden spaces. Australian Journal Of Environmental Education; East Lismore, 35, 93 - 109.

Environmental education should promote positive relationships to self, community, and the natural world. Garden spaces are frequently used as locations for environmental education programs, and in this study the researchers hoped to deeply analyze garden-based learning programs to evaluate how these programs impact participants. This study focused on findings from three garden-based programs that the researchers had observed. They found two common themes interconnecting their projects which they discuss in this paper; 1) relationality, how people understand their relationships to others and the natural world, and 2) decolonization, the process of relearning a connection to the land in resistance to traditional colonialist perspectives.

Colonization is the process in which land is stolen from its original inhabitants, historically by Western societies. In many cases, colonizing forces degrade and control relationality—how someone connects to their community and the world around them—to lessen people's connection to their land so that it may be taken from them more completely. Much environmental education work is place-based, such as garden-based education, meaning that it immerses students in their local physical and cultural context, which creates opportunities to discuss colonialist and de-colonialist perspectives. The researchers suggest countering colonized pedagogy through emphasizing indigenous ways of knowing and connecting to the land, which embrace relationality

This paper included findings from three different studies conducted in garden spaces. The first study involved children between two and five years old in day care who played in a naturalized biodiverse location. Their days included a mix of free and structured play, and their relationship building was observed by researchers. Data were collected throughout the researchers' planning notes, observations, and conversations with the participating children. The second study involved 40 students between 9 and 17 years old who participated in the Chinduzi Junior Farmer Field and Life Skills School (JFFLS) in Malawi. JFFLS is a program devised by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Program to fight food insecurity in vulnerable youth populations. The students and the researchers participated in daily activities in the school's garden, and the researchers took observational notes and had conversations with the students and elders who led the activities. The third study evaluated a cross-cultural community garden program over the course of seven years. The number of community garden plots and individual participants fluctuated over the years, but the garden included 120 plots, 120 families, and 460 individuals from 25 different countries toward the end of the study in 2017. During the study, the researcher participated in the community garden activities and collected notes, photos, and observations. Each study was independently analyzed, and then all the authors discussed the observational data across all three studies for trends and patterns.

The results from the three studies showed garden spaces were especially well-suited for stimulating relationships of mutual respect between groups of humans along with humans and non-human species. Between humans, mutual respect was characterized by kind and peaceful interactions, where all humans were focused on learning and helping each other. Mutual respect between humans and non-humans looked more like peaceful co-habitation where humans observed and did not interfere with non-human life. Across the three studies, the data revealed that participants' deepest learning was initiated through relationships of mutual respect, and that relational learning can promote intergenerational learning and cross-cultural learning. The researchers also commonly observed students incorporating knowledge they gained from formal learning settings into the informal learning setting of the gardens.

In the first study, students engaged with biota (living organisms) and abiota (non-living, physical parts of nature) in the garden around them. Observing other species and learning about how they survive in their habitats increased the children's desire to protect the species. In the second study, strong relationships developed in the garden space. uMunthu, a sub-Saharan concept which translates roughly to the ideas of humanity, interconnectedness, and respect, was commonly observed during the study. Anecdotal data suggested that participants liked the JFFLS more than their regular classroom-based schooling, and that many students found the program to be fun. Students cited reasons such as feeling less pressure to provide a 'right' answer, getting a meal, not having to take exams, and the kindness of the program facilitators as contributors to their enjoyment of the program. The third study highlighted how community gardens can create a sense of belonging for immigrants, through, for example, cross-cultural food celebrations. In addition, the researchers emphasized how the dynamics between native and invasive species can effectively start discussions about colonization.

This study was limited in terms of its methodology. In the first study, neither the number of participants nor the location was reported, and detailed information about participants was missing from all three studies. The three studies included in this paper had slightly different participant groups and methods of collecting and analyzing data, which made the conclusions between studies less clear. In addition, the researchers chose to participate in the activities alongside the students, which may have lowered their ability to objectively or fully record the impact of garden-based activities on students.

The authors suggested that the language used during activities conducted in garden-based environmental education are important to guide students to see themselves as individuals and in relation to other beings. When students understand their connections to other humans, non-human beings, and the land, they can reframe relationships, which can facilitate decolonization. Conversations about native and invasive species can also be an effective way to start a discussion about colonization. The authors recommend using gardens as a meeting place for multi-generational and cross-cultural human communities, non-human creatures, and non-living objects that enable participants to form an understanding of themselves and the world around them through deep and complex relationships.

The Bottom Line

<p>Student understanding of their relationships to non-humans and the land around them is crucial to their sense of connectedness to the natural world and willingness to protect it. Garden-based learning is commonly employed in environmental education to promote connectedness to nature through first-hand experiences. This paper included three observational studies of garden-based educational programs: one with day care children in a naturalized location, one at a Farmer Field School in Malawi, and one at a cross-cultural community garden. The findings showed that garden-based learning can promote respectful and deep connections and can help students reframe their relationships to the land around them, which facilitates decolonization. The authors recommend using garden-based learning in environmental education and for practitioners to help their students think about themselves in relation to other living and non-living things through use of language and activity design.</p>

Research Partner