The Junior Master Gardener Program: How Gardening Can Help Your Child Grow

"Plant People", a popular Junior Master Gardener activity

Not surprisingly, making “Plant People” is one of the most popular Junior Master Gardener activities.

by Su Reid-St. John

Here’s a surefire way to teach your child how to do better in school, become more involved in the community, develop initiative, and help people in need: Enroll him or her in your local Junior Master Gardener program.

“So many kids now haven’t had the experience of really being around plants or growing things,” says Lisa Whittlesey, a Texas A&M Extension Program Specialist who coordinates the International Junior Master Gardener Program. “The program is a way for them to begin to understand that their food comes from the ground, and that they can be a part of growing things that will help the community.”

Aspiring young gardeners learn to plant in raised beds

Penny Smith, a Junior Master Gardener leader and Master Gardener in Mobile County, Alabama, helps aspiring young gardeners plant the demonstration garden at the Mobile County Extension office.

Through hands-on activities, fun group projects, meaningful community service—and, yes, work in the garden—the program helps kids develop a love of gardening, respect for the environment, and a passion for giving back to world in which they live. Around a million kids from across the country participate every year, mostly through school programs, but also through 4-H clubs, home school classes, summer camps, and more.

There are two program levels, one designed for 3rd through 5th grades, the other for 6th through 8th grades. But they are presented in such a way that they can be adapted for kids from preschool age all the way through high school. “It’s a great learning environment,” says Luci Davis, Junior Master Gardener coordinator for the state of Alabama. “The kids get their hands dirty and learn without even realizing that they’re learning.”

Two teachers learn to build a bug aspirator at Junior Master Gardener teacher training

Two teachers from Castlen Elementary School in Grand Bay, Alabama learn to build a bug aspirator—which makes it easy to catch and study small bugs—during a training workshop.

What’s more, the curriculum for each program is aligned with teaching standards for subjects like math and science. “For many schools it’s an active and hands-on way to teach science,” says Whittlesey. “It’s a great alternative if a school doesn’t have the money to have a science lab.” As a bonus, kids who participate in the Junior Master Gardener program also tend to see improvements in their reading and math skills.

The benefits go beyond the school day, too. Research has shown that kids tend to both try and eat more fruits and vegetables when they grow them themselves. Plus, the preliminary results of a new study found that participating in the Junior Master Gardener program can help lower a child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese. “It’s not just about kids digging in the dirt. It’s about improving kids’ health and well-being, and establishing good habits for life,” says Whittlesey. Those improvements seem to carry over to the home, too, with families of Junior Master Gardener candidates spending more time gardening and exercising together.

A girl in a wheelchair helps pot plants as part of the Junior Master Gardener program

This student at Oak Hill School in Tuscaloosa is helping pot plants for the school’s big plant sale. She is part of a special needs class that has been a key element of the school’s Junior Master Gardener program for over 10 years.

Equally important is the community service aspect of the program. Kids do a wide variety of “service learning projects” such as raising vegetables to donate to the local soup kitchen or nursing home, or doing clean-up at the school. “The program teaches kids to give back,” says Davis.

Sounds great, right? Here’s how to get your child’s school involved: Visit jmgkids.us (or encourage your child’s teacher to do so) for details on getting started, including information on teacher training in your state. (There are programs in all 50 states, plus parts of Asia, Latin America, and Canada.) At the training, teachers learn how to integrate the program into their existing lesson plans, and to do it in a way that gives them confidence even if they’ve never gardened before. When the program gets underway, adult Master Gardeners are brought in to answer questions and just generally help out. “We don’t want teachers to feel like they’re on an island trying to do this by themselves,” says Whittlesey.

Junior Master Gardener candidates with their scarecrow made of recycled milk cartons

A group of Junior Master Gardener candidates from Cullman County, Alabama, shows off George, a scarecrow made using recycled milk cartons.

The school doesn’t even need to have a garden. “There’s a lot you can grow in containers,” Whittlesey says. And while lots of kids complete the program and become certified Junior Master Gardeners (it’s a big commitment, as each child must complete 45 group and 45 individual activities), many teachers simply choose to do the activities and projects that interest them and their students.

Either way, the program works best when the whole school gets involved. At Castlen Elementary School in Grand Bay, Alabama, for example, each class is required by the principal to spend at least an hour a week out in the garden. Each classroom is registered as a Junior Master Gardener group, and everyone works together to keep the garden beautiful. It’s a huge collaboration, and the kids thrive on it.

Elmore County, Alabama Junior Master Gardeners

Meet Elmore County, Alabama’s very first certified Junior Master Gardener class! Betty Stricker, an Elmore County Master Gardener, leads this group from Eclectic Middle School with help from teachers and some fellow Master Gardeners.

Whittlesey hears many of inspiring stories about the effect the Junior Master Gardener program has on the kids who participate. Her favorite is of Andreas, a son of immigrant farmers in the south Rio Grande area of Texas, who took part in the program a few years back. His home lacked both water or electricity, but it had one priceless amenity: Andreas’ Junior Master Gardener completion certificate, proudly displayed on the wall. That certificate gave him the confidence to believe that he could do whatever he set his mind to, and that he could make a difference in the world. Andreas is now in college—and who knows what heights he might reach?

All because of a garden.

Bonnie Plants is a sponsor of the Alabama Junior Master Gardener program.