It doesn’t matter whether budding child gardeners are introduced to the joys of nature (dirt and bugs, especially) at home by parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles, or at school by teachers who use gardening as participatory science lessons or exercises in building social skills. Starting good gardening habits early improves the chances that our children will grow up to be responsible adult gardeners, and derive just as much enjoyment (and therapy) playing in the dirt as we do.
Exactly how does gardening benefit children? There are many ways, and it would difficult to identify any one as more important than the others. Here are few examples.
- Improved health – gardening provides good exercise, and growing one’s own food shapes eating habits. Kids who grow vegetables are more likely to eat them.
- Increased environmental awareness – gardening facilitates a development of respect for nature and other living creatures.
- Learning – gardening is an enjoyable participatory experience, utilizing multiple methods of learning, providing meaningful experiences, and building practical skills for children.
- Social awareness – teamwork and interactions facilitate cooperation with fellow gardeners, develops patience, and provides a sense of pride in their accomplishments.
We already know about the benefits of community garden, and that’s a great setting for introducing kids to best gardening practices early. No matter where the opportunities present themselves, firsthand experiences with plants, dirt, and insects expand a child’s frame of reference in all the right ways.
How early is early? Remember that every child is different, and you or your child’s teacher should gauge what types of activities seem most suitable. Be careful not to expect more than your child can deliver, and put on a good face when your child reveals his latest work of garden art.
During the first three years of life, a child will be touching, holding, and pulling apart various physical components of a garden, experiencing different textures, forms, and characteristics. Learning textures is what matters most to them. That may even involve eating a few bugs and a handful of dirt. As early as age three, children can benefit from interacting with the real world, facilitating the development of practical intelligence.
For children between the ages of three and five, cardboard boxes, plastic cups or pots, stones, sand, and twigs become building materials for their temporary garden masterpieces. They also enjoy watering and feeding garden plants, so buy them their own appropriately sized watering cans. Work with them to build their own little magic kingdom in a corner of the garden, with a few fast growing, interesting plants for which they are totally (ok, mostly) responsible.
Between the ages of five and seven, children are developing their creative talents. Allow them to work in the garden alongside adult gardeners, or even to build temporary or permanent play structures in the garden. Plan social events, invite your child’s friends, and make sure the garden is involved somehow, whether as a setting, or an activity. Help your child build a small garden with a purpose or theme.
By the age of seven or eight, children’s imaginative capacities and memory are rapidly developing. The child now has the capacity to put together a bigger picture of the physical world, and how she does that influences the development of her innovative and adaptive thinking abilities later in life. At this age, a child is beginning to connect with nature, building an understanding of the seasons, how nature works, and how we benefit from it. Children will make up their own stories about nature’s magic, or secret places, in the garden. Teach them about the importance of seasonal planting, caring for the soil, and how the different seasons impact the garden.
Somewhere between the ages of nine and twelve, it’s time to get serious. If your child has stuck with you in the garden all these years, he is ready for his own plot, where the full cycle of crop production is his responsibility, with a little help from the adult gardeners.
By matching the right garden activities to a child’s capacity to learn, we can fully engage and even thrill them while providing a hands-on education in the garden. With a little luck, we’re also helping children to develop a passion for gardening early in life, which will mature into a respect for nature, a sense of responsibility, patience, and a desire in adulthood to practice gardening or farming with a focus on sustainability. We will all benefit from that.
Giving children right-sized garden tools enhances their experience in the garden, even if they’re not really helping that much yet. (Photo © vgm6 – Fotolia.com)