Childhood is a pivotal period during which the brain actively and rapidly develops. According to developmental psychologists and educators such as Malaguzzi (1998), Piaget (1973), Piaget and Inhelder (1969), and Vygotsky (1978), children are highly sensitive to outdoor environments. The experience of obtaining new information from such environments affects their thoughts.
Children are heavily influenced by their environments and are easily captivated by their immediate physical environment, which stimulates the five senses (Krantz, 1994). Friedrech Froebel, an early 19th-century German educator and the creator of the first kindergarten in 1837, insisted on the importance of this immediate environmental experience, Froebel claimed that immediate contact with nature influences children’s mental and moral development (Beatty, 1995; Herrington, 2001).
Several studies have noted the importance of forming an environmentally friendly perspective through contact with nature during childhood. This perspective becomes a key element in determining one’s awareness of and attitude toward nature in adulthood (Groening, 1995; Kahn, 2002; Louv, 2005; Wake 2007; White and Stoecklin, 1998). Many studies have argued that such contact increases an individual’s abilities regarding communication of knowledge, relaying of emotion, originality, sociability, confidence, creativity, imagination, power of observation, and personal relationships. Preschoolers exposed to nature are able to obtain a wider range of information and have better experiences when they enter school (Miller, 2007; Park and Huh, 2010). In addition, elementary school children show more positive awareness of the natural environment and an increased interest in and satisfaction with academic subjects, such as science and mathematics, when they are presented in environmental experience-based learning in gardens compared with in the conventional school setting (Catsambis, 1995; Farenga and Joyce, 1998; Simpson and Oliver, 1990; Yager and McCormack, 1989; Yager and Yager, 1985).
Europe recognized the importance of environmental experience-based learning relatively early. European educators began to create school gardens in the mid-1800s. These gardens later spurred the United States to follow this movement in the 1900s (Bachert, 1976). In addition, the nature-study movement, which began in the early 20th century, emphasized the importance of education through children’s contact with nature and motivated the creation of children’s gardens in schools (Shair, 1999). Thus, the children’s garden concept evolved from the nature-study movement. In 1911, Ellen Eddy Shaw created one of the first children’s gardens at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Concurrently, awareness of the importance of environmental education increased, and public institutions began providing more spaces for children to experience the natural environment (Eberbach, 1988; Halverson et al., 2008).
Against this backdrop, natural and environmental experience-based learning programs that were offered by public gardens for exhibition, conservation, and education were believed to be the perfect laboratories for children to nurture a sense of scientific curiosity and understand the value of life. Furthermore, it was believed that such lessons cannot be attained from a textbook-oriented school system (Mohrmann, 1999; Steil and Lyons, 2009). A comparative study of an activity-based curriculum provided by public gardens and a traditional textbook-based curriculum in school showed that students experienced superior learning outcomes with an activity-based curriculum (Bredderman, 1982). With activity-based education, students learn in a self-directed manner by focusing on their own interests. Thus, compared with education in which such activities are optional, activity-based education increases the influence of learning on students (Wilson, 1996).
Therefore, the concept of a children’s garden, which is designed as a place for children to experience the natural environment, has evolved over the last 15 years. A children’s garden is considered an optimal place to motivate one’s curiosity, research, and learning through contact with nature in playful and enjoyable ways (DiMare, 2012; Halverson, 2005; Sobaski, 2006). Consistent with these findings, the number of children’s gardens within public gardens (hereafter referred to as “public children’s gardens”) has been steadily increasing in the United States (Finch, 1995; Kwon et al., 2015).
The interest in and importance of children’s nature experience-based learning have increased. Studies have been conducted to examine the influence that environmental education programs provided by school gardens have on children’s environmental awareness and attitudes (Miller, 2007; Skelly and Zajicek, 1998; Smith, 2003; Waliczek et al., 2001). Additional studies have sought to identify the benefits of the mental and social influences that nature experience programs have on children (Alexander et al., 1995; Konoshima, 1995; Maller, 2009; Maller and Townsend, 2006) and to evaluate adolescent education programs in public horticultural institutions (Purcell et al., 2010). However, there is a lack of published studies that quantitatively examine children’s education programs provided by public children’s gardens in the United States.
Therefore, this study examines the current status of children’s education programs offered by U.S. public children’s gardens (as an experiential natural environment learning space) and analyzes their implementation and their subjects (i.e., topics and activities) to provide recommendations for their improvement.
AlexanderJ.NorthM.W.HendrenD.1995Master gardener classroom garden projects: An evaluation of the benefits to childrenChildren’s Environ.12256263
BachertR.E.1976History and analysis of the school garden movement in America 1890-1910. Indiana Univ. Bloomington Doctoral Diss. Abstr. 37-08A.
BradleyJ.C.WaliczekT.M.ZajicekJ.M.1997Relationship between demographic variables and environmental attitudes of high school studentsJ. Nat. Resour. Life Sci. Educ.26102104
DiMareJ.N.A.2012An exploration of place-based design in northeastern children’s gardens. MLA Thesis Cornell Univ. Ithaca NY.
DisingerJ.F.1998Tensions in environmental education: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, p. 1–12. In: H.R. HungerfordW.J. Bluhm T.L. Volk and J.M. Ramsey (eds.).Essential readings in environmental educationStipesChampaign, IL
EberbachC.1988Garden design for children. MS Thesis Univ. Delaware Newark.
FarengaS.J.JoyceB.A.1998Science-related attitudes and science course selection: A study of high-ability boys and girlsRoeper Rev.20247251
FoxJ.E.BerryS.2008Art in early childhood: Curriculum connections. 10 May 2015. <http://webshare.northseattle.edu/fam180/topics/art/Art%20in%20Early%20Childhood.htm>
HalversonA.F.2005Field of dreams: A grass-roots approach to starting a children’s garden. PhD Diss. Cornell Univ. Ithaca NY.
HalversonA.WellsN.RakowD.SkellyS.2008The growth of a children’s gardens p. 7–35. In: E. Goodenough (ed.). A place for play: A companion volume to the Michigan television film “Where do the children play?”Natl. Inst. PlayCarmel Valley, CA
HarveyM.1989bThe relationship between children’s experiences with vegetation on school grounds and their environmental attitudesJ. Environ. Educ.212915
KahnP.H.Jr2002Children’s affiliations with nature: Structure, development, and the problem of environmental generational amnesia, p. 93–116In: P.H. Kahn Jr. and S.R. Kellert (eds.).Children and nature: Psychological sociocultural and evolutionary investigationsMIT PressCambridge, MA
LekiesK.S.Eames-SheavlyM.WongK.J.CeccariniA.2006A children’s garden consultants: A new model of engaging youth to inform garden design and programmingHortTechnology16139142
MalaguzziL.1998History, ideas, and basic philosoph, p. 49–97In: C.P. Edwards L. Gandini and G. Forman (eds.).The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia-advanced reflections. Ablex Norwood NJ
MiddenK.S.ChambersJ.2000An evaluation of a childrens garden in developing a greater sensitivity of the environment in preschool childrenHortTechnology10385390
MillerD.L.2007The seeds of learning: Young children develop important skills through their gardening activities at a midwestern early education programsAppl. Environ. Educ. Commun64966
MillerM.A.2005An exploration of a children’s gardens: Reported benefits recommended elements and preferred visitor autonomy. PhD Diss. Ohio State Univ. Columbus OH.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. 2010. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies Science and Technical Subjects. Common Core State Standards Initiative Washington D.C. 20 Aug. 2015.
ParkS.H.HuhM.R.2010Effects of a horticultural program on the preschool children’s emotional intelligence and daily stressKorean J. Hort. Sci. Technol.28144149
SeoH.J.2013A comparative analysis of the elementary school science curriculum and textbook between Korea and United States–Focus on life science-graduate program in science education. MS Thesis Chonnam Nat'l. Univ. Educ. Gwangju South Korea.
SimpsonR.D.OliverJ.S.1990A summary of major influences on attitude toward and achievement in science among adolescent studentsSci. Educ.74118
SkellyS.M.ZajicekJ.M.1998The effect of an interdisciplinary garden program on the environmental attitudes of elementary school studentsHortTechnology8579583
SmithL.L.2003The integration of a formal garden curriculum into Louisiana public elementary schools. PhD Diss. Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Nacogdoches TX.
SobaskiC.2006An investigation of interactivity at the Michigan 4-H Children's Garden. MS Thesis Univ. Delaware Newark.
SubramaniamA.2003Garden-based learning: Considering assessment from a learner-centered approachUniv. California 4-H Ctr. Youth Dev. Monogr., Dept. Human Community Dev., Univ. California, Davis, CA
Survey Monkey2011Survey Monkey. 17 July 2011. <http://www.surveymonkey.com>
WaliczekT.M.BradleyJ.C.ZajicekJ.M.2001The effect of school gardens on children’s interpersonal relationships and attitudes toward schoolHortTechnology11466468
WhiteR.StoecklinV.1998Children’s outdoor play & learning environments: Returning to nature. 20 Nov. 2015. <https://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/outdoor.shtml>
YagerR.E.McCormackA.J.1989Assessing teaching/learning successes in multiple domains of science and science educationSci. Educ.734558