A bit of background info… ok, a LOT!!!

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Interested in learning WHY schoolyard gardening can improve your student’s learning outcomes?  Here’s the literature review I wrote exploring that topic, focusing on students with learning disabilities:

Schoolyard Gardens:  Cultivating Better Outcomes for Students with Learning Disabilities

by Toni Petri

May 2, 2011


Schoolyard gardens can provide a rich learning environment, full of opportunities for multi-sensory, cooperative, and exploratory learning.  Although schoolyard gardens are not frequently used as an intervention for students with learning disabilities (LD), there is much research to support that they would be effective in improving outcomes for many of these students.  In this review, I examine research which supports how schoolyard gardens can significantly improve four major areas that students with LD struggle with in school: academics, low motivation, social competence, and complications from the frequent co-morbidity with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  The literature review will be used to support a grant proposal for a school gardening program in P.S. 20 in Manhattan.



Over the last couple decades, a trend of schoolyard gardens has spread across the United States.  Although they are still most popular in states with warmer climates, Faddegon (2005) reports that in 2005, New York State alone had more than 250 schools and more than 11,000 students gardening using just one nationally recognized gardening curriculum.  Schoolyard gardens offer a unique learning environment, one which encourages experiential, hands-on, project based learning; cross-curricular teaching; opportunities for rich social interaction and cooperation; and also student enjoyment (Liebermann & Hoody 1998).  This type of learning environment is especially appropriate for meeting many of the educational needs of students with learning disabilities.  Many of these students may struggle in traditional classrooms, but will thrive in classrooms that are able to connect to the wide range of students’ cognitive, affective, kinesthetic and sensory needs (Salend, 2001).  Schoolyard gardens provide an experience which allows students with learning disabilities to learn and process in many ways, and to ultimately enjoy the process.

For the purposes of this literature review, I will first focus on some of the struggles students with learning disabilities face in their education.  Next, I will review research which shows how schoolyard gardening programs can help to improve the educational experience for students with learning disabilities.  The following literature review will then be used to support a grant proposal for a school gardening program in P.S. 20 in Manhattan.

The Educational Struggles of Students with Learning Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2007) defines a specific learning disability as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language.  The definition goes on to clarify that this may present itself with “an imperfect ability to:  Listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do math.”  These learning problems cannot be the result of economic, cultural, or environmental disadvantages, such as poor teaching or learning English as a second language.  The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) definition of a specific learning disability additionally mentions difficulties with self regulatory behaviors, social perceptions, and social interactions.

In school, most students with a learning disability will have significant struggles with at least one of these major subject areas in school: reading, math, or writing.  Each subject area will in turn affect several disciplines in school; for example, difficulties in reading will create problems in math with reading word problems, or in higher grades students will struggle to read textbooks in order to learn in science and social studies content.  Difficulties in writing may affect a student’s ability to provide a written response explaining how a math problem was solved; or to write an essay for any other discipline.  According to data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, (Wagner, Newman, et al, 2006), by the time students with LD have reached secondary school, on average, they are 3.4 years behind grade level in reading and 3.2 years behind in math.  As a result, students with LD usually struggle with the state mandated standardized exams necessary for grade promotion through No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (Eckes & Swando, 2009).

Additionally, students with learning disabilities often have motivational difficulties.  These students can sometimes seem to lack a sense of curiosity, the internal drive to start a new task or the persistence to stay engaged with a difficult task.  Ideally, most students learn and study about the world around them out of a sense of curiosity, or a sense of intrinsic motivation, but students with learning disabilities often do not (Friend, 2008).  Fulk and Brigham’s (1998) study showed that students with learning disabilities chose “work avoidant” options significantly more than their average achieving peers and also more than their emotionally and behaviorally disabled peers.

Students with learning disabilities may also struggle with social interactions and relationships.   They are likely to have low self-esteem, experience loneliness, problems with social competence, and difficulties in making and keeping friends (Parvi & Monda-Amaya, 2001). For example, Nowicki (2003) found that most peers would rank students with LD as having the lowest levels of popularity in their school.  On the other hand, according to Nowicki, the students with LD often ranked their own social status rankings as average to high, indicating that they were failing to effectively perceive and accurately interpret many aspects of their own social interactions with their peers.

The last aspect of learning disabilities to be addressed is the frequent co-morbidity of learning disabilities with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  A significant percentage of students with learning disabilities also have ADHD; researchers’ estimates range from 15 percent to 70 percent (Mayes, Calhoun, & Crowell, 2000).  The student who struggles with ADHD will primarily struggle with inattention and hyperactivity.  Secondary characteristics of ADHD also include academic underachievement, difficulties in social interactions with peers, and low self-esteem.  The students who struggle with both LD and ADHD have lower academic grades and lower levels of social competence than students with only LD (McNamara, Willoughby, Chalmers, & Cura, 2005).

How Schoolyard Gardens Can Improve Academic Outcomes for Students with LD

Although there is less research specific to schoolyard gardens, there is a substantially large body of research on the benefits of education occurring outdoors, in a hands-on, cooperative, experiential manner, using problem solving and project based learning. This may include school farms or gardens; but may also extend to studying a nearby river, forest, or city park (Lieberman & Hoody 1998).  Different programs and research studies may have a different name for this type of learning, such as environmental education, or environment as an integrated context (EIC), or environment-based education.  But each term refers to the same major broad concept.

The most impressive body of research proving the effectiveness of environmental education is the study done by Lieberman & Hoody in 1998.  They studied 40 schools across the country which all used environment as an integrated context (EIC) programs, interviewing hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and analyzing thousands of test scores.  Every school with an EIC program chose to integrate it with the science curriculum.  As a result, every school saw science achievement scores increase after EIC programs were in place.

The most successful programs and schools, however, were those that also integrated their EIC programs with language arts, math, social studies, and writing.  In these schools, achievement scores for all of those subjects saw dramatic increases as well.  For example, one principal cited a 9 percent increase in the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skill (TAAS) in the year to year score and after further analysis found that the most gains occurred in classrooms where students did the most EIC work.  Interviews with teachers revealed that students were more enthusiastic about researching, reading about, writing about and giving presentations about topics related to the environmental education.  In the authors’ opinion, math became more meaningful when it was applied in real world problems in their natural environment, and student math scores for the lowest achievers in one school went up 16 percentile points over a two year period once the program was initiated.  Other schools showed similar levels of improvement in math scores, with the exception of two schools, which showed no improvement.  Those two schools were also the only two schools in the study which did not integrate math into their EIC program.

As a result of these academic improvements, students’ standardized test scores have also gone up in those schools which have implemented EIC programs.  Schools that offered the EIC program were compared with similar schools in their county that only offered traditional programs and found that the school which offered EIC programs tended to have test scores 16%-27% higher than the other schools.  Research by Bartosh, Tudor, Ferguson, & Taylor (2006) also found a similar type of pattern.  They studied the standardized test results for 77 pairs of schools, over a five year period. Each pair of schools were similar in size, location, socioeconomic status, and ethnic composition, but differed in that one of the schools offered an environmental education program and the other did not.  They found that the school providing the environmental education program consistently had higher standardized test scores in all subject areas, in comparison with the matched pair school which only offered a traditional curriculum.

Although this research is not specific to students with LD, the academic outcomes of students involved in the EIC programs improved.  We can assume, therefore, that the academic outcome of students with learning disabilities would also improve with the implementation of these types of environmental education programs, including schoolyard gardens.

Additionally, most educators advocate for differentiated instruction as best practice for students with LD, or “varying instruction to meet the individual needs of all students” (Tomlinson, 1999).  Tomlinson (1999) recommends varying the cognition style, learning environment, and the intelligence preference to meet the wide variety of needs of the students.  A schoolyard garden offers students opportunities to use and learn with all of their senses; to learn in cooperative as well as individual settings; and to access and use different intelligences. A Garden is full of opportunities to meet students’ varied learning needs in ways that a traditional classroom experience is simply unable.  In many of the interviews in Lieberman and Hoody’s (1998) study, teachers spoke about how the EIC approach was, for the first time, allowing them to truly connect with many of the students who learn best through less traditional learning styles and were typically being left behind.

How Schoolyard Gardens Can Improve Motivation in Students with LD

Research shows that even the most reluctant learners begin to develop enthusiasm and engagement in learning when it takes place in an outdoor context and in an exploratory, hands-on, cooperative manner.  In Lieberman and Hoody’s (1998) research, 98 percent of educators responded on surveys that student enthusiasm and engagement improved significantly, once the EIC programs were implemented. As students became more interested in the activities at school, their ability to remain engaged in school tasks also improved.  In fact, 89 percent of respondents to the surveys reported that students were more willing to stay on task as a result of their EIC programs.

Every one of the 40 schools in the study noted that their EIC programs were especially effective at reaching the at-risk students and changing their attitudes towards school.   In interviews, teachers spoke about how for the first time, these at-risk students were gaining a passion and an eagerness to learn.  According to the authors, the EIC approach allows teachers to no longer use dry worksheets, but to use hands on, real world problems, giving each subject area a new relevance.  One student said in his interview, “Even though I don’t like school very much, I look forward to coming more than I used to because of the stuff we do.”(p. 26)  Another student said, “I signed up for Watershed because I thought it would be easier.  But let me tell you, it’s harder. But it’s fun  …  I just got awakened to the fact that I love school for the first time in seven years … Watershed makes you want to learn because it’s useful. … When I finish something I say ‘give me something else, give me something to do’” (p. 27).

Blair’s (2009) review of studies of schoolyard gardens found similar results.  She analyzed seven qualitative studies of schoolyard gardening programs and found that all seven studies noted students being highly motivated to learn by the experience of gardening in the outdoors.  Each study noted a sense of excitement and delight stemming from the exploratory learning in the context of a garden, which often resulted in improved school attitudes.

This overall increased motivation can also be reflected in improved attendance records.  Lieberman and Hoody’s (1998) research showed schools reporting that levels of attendance improved from 1% to 11%.

How Schoolyard Gardens Can Improve Social Competence in Students with LD

Learning in an outdoor environment seems to lend itself to cooperative group learning situations.  Dramatic numbers of educators responded to surveys in Lieberman and Hoody’s (1998) research telling how EIC programs improved students’ social competence.  Ninety eight percent of educators saw improvement with the EIC program in students’ abilities to collaborate with others; 94 percent of educators saw improvements in students’ abilities to communicate with others; and 93 percent of educators saw improvement in students practicing civility towards others in the EIC program.  Students ultimately were able to function as more productive members of group settings, communicate more effectively with each other, and gain a sense of community and belonging in the EIC environment.

Robinson and Zajicek’s (2005) study on schoolyard gardening programs also supports this conclusion.  Before and after working in gardening programs, they asked students to fill out surveys, the results of which indicated that the two categories of most improvement were teamwork and self-understanding.  Having exposure to many cooperative, group activities allowed students to improve their abilities to work with others.  The self-understanding questions were largely based on self-esteem, a necessary component of social competence.  Working in the garden presented tasks and responsibilities that students enjoyed and were motivated to complete.  According to Cosden, Elliott, Noble, & Kelemen (1999), academic success leads to higher levels of self-esteem, more self-confidence; and ultimately students with more self-confidence will become more social individuals.

And although these studies were not specific to students with learning disabilities, the social competency skills of students in EIC programs improved.  One might assume, therefore, that students with LD would also make similar improvements in their social competency skills in environmental education environments such as schoolyard gardens.  Schoolyard garden learning environments would nourish the growth of self-esteem, community, and overall social competence.

How Schoolyard Gardens Can Improve Attention and Impulse Control in Students having co-morbid LD and ADHD

There have been a number of studies by a few researchers into the effects of nature on the symptoms of ADHD.  Two researchers in particular, Kuo and Taylor, have been at the forefront of this discussion and have done several pertinent studies on this matter.  One of the first studies to gain much attention and to provoke controversy was their 2004 study that analyzed questionnaires from a nationwide survey of over 450 parents who were asked to give information about the effects of common daily activities on their child’s ADHD symptoms.  Parents needed to give very specific information: for example, for the activity of reading, parents would need to describe whether or not it took place indoors or in a relatively green outdoor setting.  After a statistical analysis of the parent responses to the questionnaires, Kuo and Taylor found that the results indicated that green activities significantly reduced both attention and impulse control symptoms.

Kuo and Taylor performed a follow up study, published in 2009.  In this study they had children with ADHD take a twenty-minute walk in three different settings.  One was a park, one a downtown area, and one a residential area.  After the walk, the children were given a Digit Span Backwards to measure their attention.   Results indicated that the walk in the park yielded the highest Digit Span Backwards test results in comparison with the other settings (Park=4.41, Neighborhood=3.71, Downtown=3.82).  The authors interpreted the results as demonstrating that the children had the highest level of attention after the walk in the park.

Although green activities have not been accepted by the mainstream community as a typical intervention for ADHD, the research by Kuo and Taylor indicate that as little as twenty minutes worth of time spent in a green setting would help reduce ADHD’s primary symptoms.  For students with LD in addition to ADHD, time spent in the garden may help to reduce their inattention and impulse control symptoms in the classes immediately following gardening time.

Grant Proposal

Research shows that schoolyard gardens can improve outcomes for students with learning disabilities in four major areas: academics, motivation, social competence, and complications from the frequent co-morbidity of LD and ADHD.  Based on this research, I propose a grant to implement a schoolyard gardening program at PS 20 in Manhattan for students with learning disabilities in self-contained classrooms.  The program’s curriculum would be loosely based on the UC Davis Curriculum “Nutrition to Grow On” (California Department of Education, 2005), an interdisciplinary curriculum which addresses many learning modalities.  It would be supplemented with ideas from the Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) School Gardening Curriculum and the Chicago Botanic Garden School Garden Wizard.  Both of these programs offer further interdisciplinary strategies to integrate gardening activities across the curriculum, which could maximize the academic gains for students with LD.  Furthermore, I will incorporate ideas that more effectively target learning styles from Kelly’s (2001) gardening program with students with learning disabilities.  The proposed schoolyard gardening curriculum would offer a hands on, cooperative, problem solving, learning experience that motivates and cultivates enthusiasm for learning in students with learning disabilities.


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