As parents, guardians, and educators, teaching children about where the food we eat comes from is essential to ensuring the next generation’s ability to make ethical and healthy decisions in the short and long term. Communities continue to spend less time engaging with food systems in concurrence with technological evolution, and as a result, so grows the distance between ourselves and our food systems. Sadly, many children grow up lacking connection to the journey that food takes from seed to fork. It’s a bleak situation, but fortunately for all of us, gardening exists.
Ideally people of all ages, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and from all parts of the world would feel empowered to participate in gardening, but for a variety of valid reasons, this is not always the case. My hope is that this resource will inspire you to take on the gardening project that makes sense for you and your current circumstances.
So let’s get to the good stuff: the advantages of spending time gardening with kids and getting your hands dirty!
Spending time in gardens benefits people of all ages. Gardens address public health issues, facilitate positive social change, and provide an excellent excuse for getting outside. Gardens are physically and mentally stimulating. Youth who participate in gardening benefit in many ways, including boasting higher self-esteem, lower risk of obesity, feeling better equipped to deal with stress, improved academic performance, and more. Learn more at Children & Nature Network.
If you want your children to eat more fruits and veggies, AND WE ALL DO, encourage them to help in a garden! I doubt it will be surprising to anyone that gardening can support a healthy lifestyle. The nutrient-packed fruits and veggies that a garden reaps provide excellent health benefits. And did you know that children are more likely to want to eat what they help to grow? So if you really want your kid to eat brussel sprouts, maybe try growing them together either in your own growing space, or a shared one. In addition to your children eating more plants, gardening fosters environmental stewardship and teaches responsibility.
Growing your own food is an investment and I do not mean on a financial level. When we invest time and energy into a task, we’re more likely to try to get the most out of the experience. In the garden, children observe the life cycles of plants, and they have the chance to observe their part in helping plants grow and thrive in conjunction with their own growing bodies.
Gardening is a hands-on learning experience. The garden is a great teacher. No matter how long you’ve been gardening, there are always new things to learn. Hands-on learning sparks imagination, engages the senses, and enhances fine motor development, all while supporting children’s natural sense of wonder and facilitating spaces for families to spend time together and bond. Additionally, first-hand experiences with food and gardening strengthen food literacy. Learn more about gardening with children here. Food literacy is a fancy way of describing the ability to make informed choices about food that support health, community, and environment. This includes possessing an understanding of where food comes from, how food is grown, which foods are healthy or unhealthy, and why.
Spending time outdoors fosters an appreciation for the seemingly unimportant, including observing small, but amazing, creatures. Life moves quickly, and so do we. It’s a rare person who hasn’t fallen victim to our modern tendency put too much on our schedules, for ourselves and our children. By slowing down and spending time observing natural surroundings, we’re able to reconnect with nature. How often do we sit outside and observe nature in our individual environments? There are so many micro experiences that we miss out on because they’re simply not important enough pay attention to, unless they are irritating to us. And speaking of irritating creatures, flies, wasps, beetles, and other insects are viewed as nuisances when really they are predators who help maintain the natural balance in ecosystems. And did you know that all of the aforementioned insects are beneficial pollinators? Learn more about unusual pollinators here. Snails (pictured above) are often considered the enemy of gardens, and they can certainly be destructive, but that doesn’t mean that we need to harm them. If you find that snails or other “pests” are invading your garden, gently relocate them to a spot far from your garden where they may find something more interesting than your leafy greens to munch on. By slowing down and observing, chances are that your perspective will shift, maybe not entirely, but enough to appreciate that certain “nuisance” creatures have a good side, too. Also keep in mind that your children are watching you, so if you have an negative reactions toward certain creatures, they will likely follow your lead.
So how does one get started with a garden? This depends on your situation and your level of experience with gardening. If you have a gardening space (ie a backyard or a plot in a community garden) square foot gardening is a great place to start and here is a useful guide. Everyone’s situation is different, so you will need to evaluate your potential garden space, which may require getting creative. Many people lack access to outdoor spaces, but that doesn’t mean you can’t join in the fun! People grow food in all sorts of unusual places. Container gardening can be a lot of fun. If you have the resources, you can go as far as purchasing a Garden Tower or WallyGro containers. However, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to start a garden. Save bean tins and glass jars and upcycle them into growing pots for plants, simultaneously diverting them from the recycling bin. If you’re lucky enough to have an indoor space with sufficient light, you may be able to grow herbs in your home, either in DIY planters or in the aforementioned systems. Explore these 7 fun container Gardening projects for kids.
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Many of us lack outdoor space with which to start our own gardens, but do not let that be a barrier! Community gardens are popping up all over the place, in cities, on rooftops, in rural areas, at schools, community centers, and more. Some are free and some charge an annual reservation fee. Inquire about gardens at schools and community centers near you. Chances are they need volunteers. Volunteers are often “paid” with food from the garden, s everyone benefits. If local spaces near you do not already have gardens, they may be interested in starting one with your help. The American Community Gardening Association has a handy website that allows people to search for community gardens all over the US. Check it out to find a garden near you! Additionally, if you know any gardeners, let them know that you and your little one(s) would love to maintain their garden if they’re planning to go out of town. They will very likely take you up on the offer and suggest you harvest what you’d like while you’re helping them out!
I highly encourage introducing children to gardening as early as possible. Kick off those socks and shoes and let your little ones squish their toes in the soil; I recommend that you join in, too! The benefits of walking around in the grass and dirt without the barrier of shoes outweigh the potential inconvenience of temporarily dirty feet (of course, be cautious and make sure that the area clear of debris!). So go ahead, get your hands dirty, and grow some food!