As spring moves in and our thoughts turn increasingly toward gardening, I wonder if I might convince you to add children to your garden this year. No, not as a soil amendment, but rather as a participant to enrich their lives and yours as well! Children benefit in ways many of us have never even considered when they are afforded the opportunity and privilege of working with and growing vegetables in a garden.
When I was a child, I can well remember vegetable gardening was all around me. Most of our neighbors had a garden in their backyards, and my parents and grandparents did as well. Gardens surrounded me. But was I an active participant? Not really. I helped my grandfather a few times in his garden, but no one had me participate "on purpose," and I grew up not really knowing the difference between small vegetable plants and small weeds! Yes, I know it’s hard to believe…but it’s quite true. I’m betting this same thing has happened to many youngsters. It wasn’t until I was married and in college that my empty wallet beckoned me to try my hand at growing vegetables for my own refrigerator and cabinets. That was what educators call a "teachable moment!" I was then an eager learner!
Researchers have found exposure to healthy foods, a moderate physical activity and positive social interaction while gardening can lead to a lifetime of gardening. Don’t you want your children and grandchildren to enjoy the many benefits and blessings of gardening? I sure do.
Researchers in many, many studies have found conclusive proof children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, and to have higher knowledge about nutrition. They’re more likely to continue healthy eating habits throughout their lives, which can help prevent or delay chronic disease conditions over a lifetime (Heimendinger & Van Duyn, 1995).
Besides helping children to live more healthy lives, gardening also provides different forms of engagement for children including learning about science, planning, cultivating, harvesting and sharing of produce, preparing, planning and even design. A wise adult can also work in life lessons along topics like patience, responsibility, work ethics, faith, cooperation and other all-important topics.
It’s quite easy to see how many wonderful opportunities for learning about science can be presented in a vegetable garden. Everything from seed germination to the importance of worms, plant pollination, insects, plant nutrition, disease prevention…it’s all right there!
Here’s a point I’ll bet you didn’t consider when you wondered whether or not it would be worth the effort to involve your young ones in your gardening efforts this year: stress. Not yours, but their stress. Children these days are as stressed as their parents. School workloads and homework increase every year and children are getting fewer and fewer break times or play time. After school they’re often shuttled from one demanding activity to another. Gardening can help to counter some of this stress and has been shown to have a profound calming effect. Nature involvement, as well as connections to plants and green space, has been proven over and over to help us in many, many ways. Gardening gives us some real opportunities to help our children.
So, turn off the cartoons, put away the video games and the cell phone, and get your children or grandchildren off the couch and out of the house to enjoy and learn from the wonders of your garden this year! Just do it!
Jerry A. Chenault is an Urban Regional Extension Agent with The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, New & Nontraditional Programs division.