Teach a Kid to Garden

Studies show that teaching children to garden can encourage healthy eating habits down the road. There are several programs and schools in central Arkansas that are encouraging kids to get dirty and learn life lessons outside of the classroom.

By Dwain Hebda

Forest Park farmers market. Photo by kerry 

Forest Park farmers market. Photo by kerry 


Forest Park Elementary and Dunbar Garden of Little Rock are, in many respects, worlds away from one another. Forest Park resides in a picturesque, manicured enclave where the Heights neighborhood melts into Cammack Village. Dunbar Garden is a shock of green in the middle of a blue-collar urban neighborhood south of Interstate 630.

But what both of these places have in common is the near-constant presence of school children and youth throughout the week, digging in the dirt, watering plants and discovering the basic building blocks of where food comes from and how to nurture the very earth that supports it.

“There’s a nutritional side to it. There are so many kids who had never tried a radish until they planted the seed, saw it grow and come out of the ground and then picked it,” said Kerry Guice, a writer and mother of two who helped get the Forest Park garden off the ground last year. “Then there’s the environmental side of it. We have a compost bin, we have a recycle center where we recycle not just paper, but also small electronics, ink cartridges and things like that.

“I think it’s rewarding for parents to know that their kids are learning so much more than what regular school can teach a child,” Guice said.

“Everybody says it now, but it's real: People just do not know where their food comes from,” said Damian Thompson, Dunbar Garden program coordinator. “We’re getting [kids] to learn that at an early age. You start that early and you've got a much longer lifetime of nutritional knowledge, and it can only increase health through better diets.

“Also, if you know where it comes from, then you want to take care of the soil. You want to clean things up. You think twice about littering and using chemicals,” he said. Dunbar Garden is flanked by Gibbs Elementary and Dunbar Middle School, of which Thompson is an alum, but the two-acre garden’s reach extends well past that, providing a steady stream of students to experience the outdoor classroom on a regular basis. For some, it’s a radical ecological awakening.

“There are so many kids who live in apartments. They don't have yards,” Thompson said. “Something we teach them is how to grow things on your windowsill or in pots. They start their own seeds out here. In February or March we'll start tomatoes, and then whoever can will take their tomatoes home and grow them over the summer.”

Forest Park elementary garden. Photo by Kerry guice.

Forest Park elementary garden. Photo by Kerry guice.

Most of Forest Park’s kids grow up surrounded by greenspace. In fact, it’s that very environment that inspired the garden in the first place.

“All of us parents realize [gardening’s] important for so many reasons,” Guice said. “It’s always been a sore spot for us that our kids don’t get the time in recess that we think they should. [Gardening] gets the kids outside, gets them some Vitamin D and fresh air, instead of being cooped up inside all day.”

Access Academy student works with a horticulture expert to plant herbs in the soil-free, aeroponics growing system. photo by rett peek.

Access Academy student works with a horticulture expert to plant herbs in the soil-free, aeroponics growing system. photo by rett peek.

Another impressive school garden is found at Access Academy, a learning community for children with special needs, which has incorporated gardening at some level in its educational activities since it was founded in 1996.

“It just makes sense in a variety of categories,” said Tammy Simmons, co-founder and executive director. “It’s hands-on learning. When you have a garden, you’re designing the beds and determining how many square feet it is. If we’re going to have two inches of mulch, how much would we need? If the plant needs so many inches around it, how many will go in a certain space? It’s really practical applications.”

Simmons said the kinds of lessons learned outside can also be a great equalizer for children, particularly those who have difficulty with traditional classroom methods. “It puts everybody at the ground level, literally,” she said. “Everybody gets to the ground level and it's not about your ability in a textbook anymore, where many of our kids struggle. It’s about your ability to take what you've learned and apply it. We see so many kids who may not excel in the classroom setting really excel in the garden setting.”

Access Academy garden. Photo by Rett Peek.

Access Academy garden. Photo by Rett Peek.

The program has grown large enough across its two campuses to occupy two greenhouses and support an annual on-site plant sale that raises money for the school. The growth has also allowed the school to branch out into companion garden products including its “worm tea,” an all-natural liquid fertilizer made from worm casings. Simmons said that beyond the money raised, gardening pays substantial dividends for the student body and staff alike, starting from the top down.

“I know that I crave to garden,” Simmons said. “And I know that I love it because I love the beauty, but I also probably crave it for the physical activity. Everything’s right with the world if I’m out there working in the garden.”


A garden program is not only educational, it’s one important weapon in the ongoing battle against childhood obesity, said Emily English, and she should know. In her dual roles as program director for both the Arkansas GardenCorps and Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute Childhood Obesity Prevention Research Program, she’s helped develop school- and community-based gardens across the state.

“There is evidence that shows that nutrition education can increase fruit and vegetable consumption,” she said. “We also know that when you add a garden component to nutrition education you will see a greater increase in nutritional knowledge, preference or willingness to try fruits and vegetables and a behavior change, that is, consumption.”

Given that gardening is one of the simplest and least-expensive extracurricular activities to start at a school, the return on investment in lasting healthy habits is substantial. To help get a garden off on the right foot, she recommends:

Have a person in charge. Whether assigned to a member of the faculty or plucked from the ranks of parents, make sure there’s a designated point person. “The thing about gardening is someone ultimately has to be responsible,” English said. “Successful gardens have a school champion both on the ground and at the administrative level.”

Spread the work, share the love. Ideally, garden projects are administered by a committee of individuals. This helps spread around responsibilities and encourages wider participation and advocacy. “A committee can troubleshoot problems, spread the good word of the garden and figure out how it integrates in the institution and the culture of the school.”

Leverage outside resources. There are lots of organizations dedicated to helping get gardens off the ground and their websites provide a wealth of information. Some of English’s recommended sites:

University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service - UAEX.edu