Core Principles Series: Engage Kids in Meaningful Fitness

February 21st is President’s Day in the U.S., but I’d rather highlight my favorite former First Lady, Michelle Obama. Her s/heroic move to install a 2800-square foot garden on the White House South Lawn in 2009 inspired the nation at a time when the school garden movement was already poised to grow. Shortly thereafter, she launched the Let’s Move! campaign to promote health and boost wellbeing through nutrition and an active lifestyle.

According to Nathan Larson, author of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education, there are many ways to promote fitness in a school garden. Even more importantly, Larson names the reasons why kids need to move: to supplement the amount of physical activity children get in school. Two ideas that rise to the top for Larson–a digging bed and a wheelbarrow–involve movement that mimics weight lifting.

A well-loved feature of the school garden for TK/Kinder students is a digging bed or circle with small trowels or shovels. Safe, but unstructured digging is similar to endurance training: a repetitive motion with lower weight. An important garden tool is a wheelbarrow. Pushing and dumping a full wheelbarrows could be like strength training: fewer reps with higher weight. In both cases, the “right sized” tools and developmentally appropriate tasks make gardening fun for kids of all ages.

Building on last month’s post about Using an Integrated Curriculum, any activity done in the garden can be an avenue for teaching about energy use, motion, and spatial awareness. Many garden tasks promote fine motor development as well. Gripping plants, pinching back stems, cradling seeds all involve careful hand movement.

The Junior Master Gardener Learn-Grow-Eat-Go curriculum also incorporates a physical activity component, concluding each of the 10 lessons with a game or challenge.

The work of the garden provides plenty of fitness alone, but building in cooperative games is another way to get kids moving outside. When I first started teaching in a school garden in 2010, kids adored the game Sun-Soil-Water-Air. A variation of the indoor version “Four Corners,” we used four benches positioned around a tree circle to play this game. One player was lightly blindfolded while chanting “sun-soil-water-air, everything we eat, everything we wear…” (Banana Slug String Band, 2002). The rest of the gardeners would scramble to select one of the benches designated as one of each the four essentials for plant growth: sun, soil, water and air.

I’m a firm believer that gardening isn’t good therapy only for the mind, but also for the body. Not only do muscles get a workout from bending to pull weeds or lifting shovels full of compost, our senses get a workout as well.


Check out the Top Ten FLOTUS Let’s Move Moments.

Loose soil weighs about 75 pounds per cubic foot. Imagine students filling a box 12″ in length, width, and height (a one-foot cube) several times. That’s just a little less than the amount of soil fits into a child-sized wheelbarrow like the ones used pictured at left that were used in the “Traveling Wheelbarrows” project reported on below.

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