Most of my childhood memories are centered around food. I spent endless hours climbing fruit trees and gorging on plums and apples until my belly ached; sitting in green bean tee-pees, and scouring the grapevines, raspberries and blackberries for the newest ripe tidbit. Once winter started settling and the fruit and vegetables had been harvested, my food obsession did not wane. Hulling black walnuts before letting them dry by the fireplace, sneaking apples from the garage that had frozen in the cold: these were daily occurrences for me. We were not wealthy, but what our family lacked in money, we made up for in gardening.
Gardening can be daunting to those who have never done it, and doubly so with kids in the picture. But don’t let the idea overwhelm you. Gardening can be as simple as a pot of herbs on your kitchen counter. The most important part of gardening with your kids isn’t actually the food that you grow: it’s the quality time spent and the lessons imparted. The opportunity for kids to get dirty, learn about the science and beauty behind growing plants, and the time spent engaging in a family activity is priceless.
Gardening also teaches children the value of following a project from beginning to end. When I was growing up, my parents gave me my own area of the garden that was completely mine. I was able to plant what I wanted. This gave me the opportunity to execute a plan, and see it through to (literal) fruition, which built my confidence immensely.
Now as an adult, I have only just begun gardening with my son. Less than two years old, he started by helping me sow seeds in the garden, from nasturtiums and carrots, to spinach, squash, and radish and he loved pat-pat-patting the dirt over the top of them. Now, having just turned two, I will often watch him from the kitchen window as he goes out, turns on the hose, and waters the garden of his own accord. He loves to watch the water sink into the earth and see the butterflies and bees flying around. Most importantly, he loves to pick everything, be it spinach leaves, kale, green beans or (usually unripe) tomatoes. He picks so much that we have a rule of thumb in our garden: if you pick something, you have to eat it.
Do you know how much spinach and kale he now eats in a day? This means less fuss at the table to sneak veggies into his meals, because I know that he has had plenty of fresh, raw veggies from the garden throughout the day.
But struggling to get a child to eat his greens isn’t the only reason to dig deep into gardening.
"Whatever the reason, as I work I can feel the tension in my body slowly release. I relax. The activity of my hands sorts out the chaos in my mind and my thoughts flow rhythmically, one at a time, passing by slowly and allowing me a moment to dwell on each one. Things make sense down in the dirt." | This little gardener and I are guest posting about digging in the dirt over on the @pinholepress blog today. Go check it out! Link in profile. ☀️🌱🥕🍅🌽 #emmettwilder #pinholepress #gardeningwithkids #wildandfreechildren
Childhood obesity continues to be a problem in the United States. While research on the effects of gardening on school-aged children is limited, many of the studies point to one striking similarity: gardening increases vegetable consumption in children.
I sat down with Eileen Gallagher, MD, RD and COPE certified health coach, to talk to her about how she’s seen gardening impact her patients. As a family practice physician, Gallagher sees patients of all ages, and says that she recommends gardening to many of them, “especially to families with children who are selective eaters.” Gallagher believes that gardening is an accessible activity for families and communities to promote healthy eating in young kids, and is “a great activity for families and children to learn about food – how it’s grown, how to harvest, what care it takes,” etc.
It stands to reason that the more exposure a child has to vegetables and the more of them a child eats, the healthier they become as their nutrient intake increases.While children are out there gardening, they’re also moving their bodies as they dig, rake, water, and harvest their garden. They’re bending and twisting, squatting and reaching, and ultimately teaching their body how to balance, execute fine motor skills, and use muscles they may not use sitting in a classroom all day.
They’re also expanding their minds. As a child watches a plant grow from seed to mature fruit, they learn about photosynthesis, soil composition, and pollination. They can learn critical math skills, by measuring plant growth, counting how many squash they picked, or how many flowers are on each plant.
As Gallagher, MD, RD notes: “I have a patient who runs a local gardening program and has seen great benefit in children learning how to incorporate healthier foods and choices into their lifestyle. They also learn about financial literacy through growing and harvesting food and then putting it to the market.”
Kids who garden will apply lessons about colors (red tomatoes, purple eggplants, etc.), textures (the grit of dirt in their mouths, the smooth flower petals, etc.), and flavors (spicy arugula and sweet peas). Let’s not forget that getting dirty also strengthens a kid’s immune system, and helps reduce allergies and asthma prevalence.
Helping your child build a solid understanding of food does not need to be a complex undertaking. You can start as simple as planting wheat germ seeds into soil in an old egg carton and watching as wheatgrass begins to sprout from the dirt with diligent watering. Build up to potted cherry tomatoes on your deck or a raised garden bed where weeds once grew. You do not need much space to begin your gardening adventure.
Gardening goes beyond feeding nutrients and teaching science; it has the ability to capture the imagination of anyone willing to give it a try. I remember hours spent lying on my stomach, looking in between the plants stalks and leaves, imagining worlds and adventures amongst them. A child can go far, if given the opportunity.
Some of life’s simplest pleasures and greatest adventures can be found in a dirt patch: just add water and sunshine.