How gardening at school can tackle child obesity

Matluba Khan, Cardiff University

Childhood obesity is a major public health concern in the UK. Surveys conducted in 2017 and 2018 showed that 28% of children aged from two to 15 in England were overweight or obese. Overweight and obese children have a greater chance of staying obese as adults. They are at risk of developing diseases in adulthood such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and osteoarthritis.

This rise in obesity has been fuelled by poor diet and a decline in physical activity. Only 41% 11 year olds in Europe and Canada have vegetables in their daily meals, while only 24% participate in at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity (such as brisk walking or running) daily.

Tackling this problem early in childhood is important to develop lifelong healthy behaviour. One potential solution is integrating vegetable gardening into the school curriculum. This strategy both addresses low activity levels and models healthy eating.

Getting children gardening

In 2018, Dr Ruth Bell and I worked to design and study a school gardening project in a London primary school. We carried out this project together with the Conservation Volunteers, a community volunteering charity working towards creating healthier communities, and Meat Free Monday, a not-for-profit campaign which aims to raise awareness of the impact of animal agriculture and industrial fishing on the environment and encourage eating plant-based meals.

Children at the primary school participated in regular gardening sessions, for two hours each week over a whole academic year. They also took part in educational sessions on the environmental and health benefits of plant-based meals, and were encouraged to taste and try new vegetables.

The gardening activities were designed around children’s own suggestions: they drew plans for developing the school grounds and created nature maps showing their ideas for the location of the garden and other features to encourage wildlife.

In the winter, the children prepared raised beds for growing spring crops – weeding, covering and refilling them with leaf mulch. They sowed seeds and took care of their grounds and the garden.

Measuring results

In order to assess the impact on the children, we compared the gardeners against a control group. For half a year, 30 children in one class continued their regular indoor school sessions – the control group – while 30 from another class took part in the gardening activities. In the second half of the year, the control group were also given the opportunity to get involved in the gardening.

We asked all 60 children to wear GENEActiv accelerometers for seven consecutive days to record their different activity levels. They also responded to a questionnaire that asked them about what they think of fruit and vegetables and how much of them they eat.

We found that children who participated in the regular gardening sessions spent less time sitting than their peers who had their classes indoors. The children attending the gardening sessions were also more active, taking part in more moderate to vigorous intensity exercise than their peers in the other class. In discussion with us, children mentioned growing muscles as they engaged in different kinds of gardening activities.

Although it was winter, that did not matter much to the children. They were eager to spend more time outdoors as they enjoyed gardening activities in the school grounds.

Increased knowledge

While our statistics did not show any increase in consumption of vegetables from the children who worked in the garden, the children told us that they knew more about plants, nutrition and the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. Many children said that they were keen on trying new vegetables, and some of them said that they now ate vegetables that they would have previously transferred to their mum’s plate.

In winter, the children spent a lot of time on preparing the garden for spring crop growing and did not have the chance to taste the produce from the garden. Some of them thought they would have eaten more veggies if they could work in their gardens all year round, and could plant, harvest and taste their own garden grown veggies.

Teachers found that children who had not been performing well in the class found themselves doing better in the outdoor sessions, which then transferred to their regular school sessions. One student who was particularly struggling in the classroom showed leadership abilities and subsequently signed up to join the Scouts. Children with learning difficulties were also more engaged in the gardening sessions.

The children told us that they thought nature can bring people together and make people kinder and better. One of them mentioned having an argument with a friend in the classroom but making up during the gardening sessions. The children also expressed their frustrations with their school lunch options, and that they would have preferred more vegetarian or vegan options and variety in vegetarian recipes.

Integrating gardening sessions with the curriculum can inspire teachers to take classes outdoors. Wide-scale implementation could improve children’s health in the longer term and tackle the obesity pandemic.

Matluba Khan, Lecturer in Urban Design, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I redesigned a school playground for my PhD – and the children got better marks learning outside

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the education of at least 1.5 billion school students. That’s more than 90% of the world’s children. Although many schools in the west, along with private schools in the developing world, have continued some school activities online, more than 50% of learners worldwide do not have a household computer. The absence of face-to-face learning and opportunities for playing with friends will have hugely impacted child mental health.

Countries are taking different approaches as to when, where and how to reopen schools, and some places are emphasising the benefits of outdoor learning.

Research has shown that an outdoor environment can improve children’s motivation and well-being, and can contribute to increasing children’s physical activity and learning outcomes. Learning in nature has been shown to reduce stress and boost mental well-being.

Outdoor learning was traditionally practised in countries across the African and Asian continents, but is increasingly valued less. In many cases, it is only perceived as an option when there is no functioning classroom. But now, more than ever, the benefits of outdoor learning must be capitalised on all over the world.


I have been researching outdoor learning environments for more than 10 years. While most research in this area is concentrated in western countries, my own has focused on Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh the net enrolment rate at primary schools is nearly 100%, but only 32% of the children reach higher secondary level (typically completed at ages 16-18). There are many reasons for this high dropout rate, including poverty and child marriage.

But one reason that is rarely considered is the quality of the learning environment. Evidence shows many students drop out because they do not feel attracted to school and did not like the traditional teaching and learning environment.

Teaching and learning outdoors has been core to the education system in the Indian subcontinent and was practised widely before the education system was formalised. It is still being practised in the town of Shantiniketan, India, established by the Nobel Laureate poet and philanthropist Rabindranath Tagore. But the idea is not mainstream and the political, physical and social infrastructure to support its wider implementation is absent.

I looked into whether learning in an outdoor environment can improve children’s academic attainment, motivation and play in a Bangladeshi primary school as part of my PhD. School grounds in Bangladesh are largely barren fields without any features. Clearly this needed to change if outdoor learning was to be encouraged. The school I worked with was a primary school 80 kilometre from the capital city Dhaka.

The original schoolground. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

I wanted the children’s input for the redesign. I asked Grade IV children (eight- to 12-year-olds) what they would like to have in their playground for both learning and play. The children drew pictures and shared their thoughts. I brainstormed with teachers separately and asked what they would need in the outdoor learning environment in order to take curricular teaching and learning outdoors.

Then we all participated in a model making workshop, led by the children. I supplied materials based on the drawings made by children and suggestions offered by teachers. We have presented the model to the local community who came forward to help us with whatever resources they could offer.

The model. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

A new classroom

The children wanted places to explore and experiment, to play and learn together, to challenge them physically and intellectually, to make things and be creative, to connect with nature, to be alone and to reflect. Studies with children from different parts of the world have yielded similar results, showing these preferences are universal.

Teachers, meanwhile, told me that nature can offer opportunities to try out science. They wanted different types of vegetation and a garden in the schoolyard. They requested an area with different loose materials such as twigs, branches, seeds and egg crates to help them demonstrate number theories and other mathematical problems. They also asked for some group learning settings for group activities and an outdoor classroom.

All of these preferences were then taken into account when the Bangladeshi architect, Fuad Abdul Quaium, and myself designed the school ground. We hired local masons and used low-cost materials and technology. The children designed a mural. The school ground was ready for use in January 2015. The teachers led children outdoors regularly for their maths and science lessons.

The mural. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

My research showed that the children’s attainment in maths and science improved after teaching and learning outdoors. The Grade IV children performed significantly better in maths and science compared to a comparable school which had had no change in the environment.

Hands-on learning outdoors made learning fun and engaging for everyone, but particularly benefited underachievers. We found that children who didn’t interact much in the classroom setting were more pro-active and participated more in their outdoor sessions.

The new schoolground. © Matluba Khan, Author provided

An outdoor future

Outdoor classrooms can also provide the space to maintain social distancing while learning. But the school ground should be designed in a way to support teaching and learning, and teachers need training in use of their school ground and surroundings for teaching.

My research strengthens the already existing evidence on benefits of outdoor learning. The study also generates new evidence for its use outside western countries, suggesting outdoor learning has the potential to improve the quality of education all over the world.

Matluba Khan, Lecturer in Urban Design, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.