This systematic review of the literature examined the health and well-being impacts of school gardens and the factors that help or hinder their success. Researchers used multiple databases and a range of supplementary approaches in conducting this review of both quantitative and qualitative studies focusing on physical or mental health or well-being outcomes of school gardens. Forty studies met the inclusion criteria and were included in this review.
A quality appraisal of the studies indicated that the quantitative research was generally poor and offered only limited evidence of changes in children's fruit and vegetable intake. The qualitative studies represented somewhat better quality research and provided evidence of a range of health and well-being outcomes of school gardens. Certain groups of students seemed to benefit more than others from engagement with the school gardens. Students who did not do well in classroom activities tended to do better in garden-based activities. Researchers used the findings of this review to develop a conceptual model representing some of the possible mechanisms and pathways through which gardening could promote children's health and well-being.
Several cross-cutting themes emerged from the analysis of the qualitative studies: (1) school gardening can be integrated with the wider academic curriculum to maximize opportunities for learning; (2) school gardens seem to have particular benefits for children who have special behavioral, emotional, or educational needs and do not thrive in an academic environment; and (3) both students and adults (teachers, parents, and volunteers) benefited from the school garden programs. While this review did not include studies focusing only on educational impacts of school gardens, some of the included studies focusing on health and well-being benefits also reported academic benefits, such as increased levels of student engagement and motivation. Additional positive impacts of school gardening programs identified through this review include greater environmental awareness and the promotion of a sense of a connection to nature. Benefits experienced by adults included increased knowledge and skills relating to gardening and cooking. Factors threatening the success of school garden programs include the lack of funding and over-reliance on volunteers. Factors supporting success include involvement with local communities and integration of gardening activities into the school curriculum.
This review, while supporting the idea that school gardens can benefit students and adults in various ways, also highlights weaknesses in study design and reporting. More robust evidence is needed to promote school gardening programs as public health interventions.