Using School Gardens to Promote Children’s Physical Activity and Fitness

child with carrot

Encouraging healthy food choices, nutrition, and wellness among school children can extend beyond the classroom or the school cafeteria. School gardens are a wonderful place to educate and support students to use healthy eating practices. In addition, they can also promote physical activity and exercise.

Many schools are decreasing or eliminating Physical Exercise (PE) and recess

While schools are implementing school reforms to combat childhood obesity, many children in our nation’s schools have been granted little or no time for physical activity. In its biennial survey of high school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly half did not have any PE classes in an average week.

Furthermore, schools are eliminating or reducing recess. Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have struggled to find ways to meet the Act’s rigorous assessment standards. Unfortunately, to address these needs schools have been forced to eliminate recess as one way to create time for more academics. Another approach has been to withhold time allotted for physical activity as a punishment for poor classroom behavior, or as extra tutoring time for struggling students. Specific estimates on the amount of cutbacks to school recess in order to accommodate a more vigorous academic curriculum differ. However, what is certain is that the trend to eliminate recess and/or PE is on the rise.

School gardens are a place for physical activity and exercise

Using school gardens as a place to promote physical activity and exercise can help fill the gaps when recess or physical education has been reduced or even eliminated.

Working in a garden space inherently provides a safe and constructive outlet for a child’s physical energy. This is especially notable in areas where outdoor spaces are often not compatible with traditional forms of exercise. The garden often becomes a place of pride and enjoyment for youth who will eagerly participate in garden activities. In some cases, however, garden activities like recess and PE have been reduced or eliminated from the regular school day. After-school garden clubs are one way to provide opportunities for youth to garden and engage in physical activity.

Gardening is a full body exercise

Gardening provides all four types of exercise: endurance, flexibility, balance and strength. Turning time in the school garden into a structured exercise routine is a great way to incorporate additional physical education and fitness into the school day. Here are a few suggestions for building a structured exercise routine into garden time.

Before going outside

  • Be sure to alert the kids a day or more before the activity to wear appropriate clothes and shoes.
  • When temperatures are hot and sun is strong begin your garden activity by helping students apply sunscreen, putting on hats as needed and making sure that all kids have something to drink.
  • Don’t forget to provide an overview with students about potential hazards such as bugs/insects, poisonous weeds or potential pollen allergies.

Starting your garden activity 

  • Start every garden time with warm up. Lead students in warming up muscles for 5-10 minutes before they garden. Start every session with some simple stretching exercises such as lunges, shoulder shrugs, hamstring and quad stretches, side bends, and shoulder and triceps stretches.
  • Follow stretching with running. Have students run from one end of the garden to another. Or set up an obstacle course using old plant pots and then have students weave in and out of the pots. Repeat it a few times and encourage students to go a little faster each time. Now, repeat one more time but this time using sidestepping.

Setting up a Garden Circuit 

  • After developing a plan of the tasks that need to be done in the garden, set up a garden activity circuit with multiple stations. The number of stations depends on the number of students you will be working with. No more than 4 students should work at each station. Be sure there are enough adults to help supervise each station if students are spread out at multiple stations at the same time. Allow time for each team to rotate through several stations.
  • Set up stations by having light activities alternate with heavier ones. For example, Rake for a while, and then dig holes, and then prune.
  • Simple garden activities such as raking can become a physical activity challenge. For example, challenge students to rake right-handed 15 times, then left-handed 15 times. During planting time when students are digging holes with a hand trowel, have them alternate digging each hole with a different hand.
  • Pushing a wheelbarrow is a great strength workout. Students who are pushing a wheelbarrow for carrying soil, compost, or garden debris should be instructed on how to lift the wheelbarrow using their legs and not their back. Have the students pushing the wheelbarrow do 5-10 correct lifts in place before they begin each trip.
  • Shoveling compost or soil amendments is another garden activity that provides a good strength and endurance exercise. One strategy would be to have youth work in teams of two. The first student shovels 10 times using good physical form then the next student step in and shovels 10 times. Repeat this activity 5 times.
  • Focus on the major muscle groups to maximize the exercise benefits from gardening. Jeff Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way recommends bending knees while raking, for example, or placing a crate that requires one to step up and down when moving from one garden bed to the next.
  • Encourage students to exaggerate their movements so that they achieve the maximum range of motion and change their stances in order to use different muscles. When raking, for example, have students put their left foot forward, and use their left hand lower on the handle. Then have them switch, putting their right foot forward, changing hands too.
  • End the garden time with active garden games. The Oregon State University BEPA (Balance Education Physical Activity) Toolkit is one source of ideas for integrating physical activity and nutrition concepts through education and activity. Nutrition concepts are linked to physical activity concepts and active games through an approach that explains the concept of balanced energy as a combination of healthful eating and regular, varied physical activity. Access this resource at
  • Make sure to ask students for their own ideas on how to use the garden for physical activity. Students are creative and might welcome the challenge for discovering new ways to use gardens are a part of school physical activity plan.

Additional Resources

For ideas on how to encourage more physical activity in your school see the following resources: 

Let’s Move Program (

Let’s Move! Active Schools ( provides individual champions with a clear roadmap to meet their goals in the 5 key areas.

Turner, P. (2015). Therapeutic Gardening. Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication HORT-66NP. Retrieved from:

For more school garden resources, click here! 


Maureen Hosty, Oregon State University Extension


Oregon State University Service GROW Healthy Kids (2015). BEPA Toolkit. Retrieved from

Restuccio, J. (1992). Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way: A Health and Wellness Lifestyle. Balance of Nature Publisher.

United States Government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). Adolescent and School Health. Retrieved from