ALEX LIEBERMAN-CRIBBIN started walking at about the same time he started gardening. As a child growing up in New York, some of his first memories take place in the garden. “I remember being extremely little and filling a giant jug as big as myself with water,” says the 17-year-old high school senior. “I hauled the container to the garden so my mom could water. I’ve always found gardening fun and relaxing, and I love to eat what I’ve grown.”
Gardening is a healthy activity that initiates discovery and learning on so many levels that experts are now considering “green” activities natural adjuncts to the classroom and even part of the solution to common childhood problems such as low self-esteem, obesity, stress and the overuse of technology.
“We know gardening helps ‘grow’ good kids,” says Randy Seagraves, curriculum director for the National Junior Master Gardener Program, a program of Texas AgriLife Extension System, the Texas A&M system. The international organization is a program of the university cooperative Extension network and is headquartered at Texas A&M University, with chapters in 50 states and 10 countries. “Growing” good kids is the mission of the National Junior Master Gardener Program.
“Gardening has been shown to increase self-esteem, develop a sense of responsibility, cultivate delayed gratification and create children who become less focused on self and more apt to nurture others,” says Seagraves. “When food products are involved in gardening, nutrition is also improved.”
While these positives previously have been based on anecdotal evidence, several studies in recent years prove these and similar points. At Texas A&M, for instance, they found that a summer gardening program improved child participants’ knowledge of the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and showed an increase in healthier snack consumption after the study. Studies done by the College Station-based university and other institutions also have found an improvement in science academic scores when gardening is incorporated into the curriculum.
“There’s no limit to what kids can learn from being in the garden,” says Long Island, New York, horticulturist Cindy Krezel, author of “101 Kid-Friendly Plants” (Ball Press, 2008) and “Kids’ Container Gardening” (Ball Press, 2005). “Through the medium of the garden you can teach young children the alphabet, colors, seasons and counting – and for older kids more complicated abstract math concepts like geometry.”
Gardening is also the ideal antidote to the high-tech, complicated world in which we live, says Krezel. “It’s so important to balance technology like video games and television with the high-touch, sensory experience of the outdoors and the garden,” she says. “Kids’ lives are so structured and hectic nowadays, and there’s very little room for imagination. Children have school and extra-curricular activities. They sit in the car on the way to soccer, which someone has told them to play. By letting kids experiment and express themselves in the garden, you give them some control over their lives and a sense of empowerment. Through gardening they learn to take responsibility for another life.”
Experts feel that the sense of nurturing derived from the experience and a connection with the Earth are among the most important by-products of teaching children about the natural world.
“Although plants aren’t pets, they do need to be cared for, and doing so teaches children a cause-and-effect lesson – if you don’t water plants, for instance, they die,” says Stephen Brueggerhoff, public programs manager at the Wildflower Center. “When we fail to expose our children to the beauty of nature, they can feel alienated from the natural world,” he says. “I’ve actually met child visitors to the Center who expressed anxiety over butterflies. Gardening is a good way to provide a positive atmosphere and understanding of nature in a safe environment right in your own backyard.”
Lieberman-Cribbin thinks that gardening has definitely resulted in his being a more responsible steward of the environment.
“Gardening made me more aware of the Earth and the importance of preserving it,” he says. “I’ve felt a continuing attachment to the environment as I’ve watched my garden grow over the last 15 years, and I know that is something I’ll feel for the rest of my life.”
When it comes to environmental preservation, better still are those gardening lessons that incorporate native plants.
“We speak about gardening as a way to connect a child very personally to the natural world. Native plants further extend that connection,” says Seagraves. “Kids learn that we have access to a great diversity of plants that originate from locations around the world. They can admire the exotics but develop a deeper appreciation for that plant material that is at home already suited to thrive in their backyards.”
Native plant gardening is a wonderful way to teach children about sense of place, adds Lisa Bennett, who is in charge of communications for the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. The organization’s mission is education for sustainable living through a variety of school programs. “You can help young people research what butterflies live in your area and the plants that they depend on, then plant a butterfly habitat,” she says. “Because native plants have learned to survive over long periods of time, native plant gardening can help children feel a part of nature, rather than trying to control it.”
If you plant natives with children, Molly Dannenmaier, who is the author of “A Child’s Garden” (Timber Press, 2008), offers these tips. “Make a fact sheet about each plant in your native garden. Where exactly is the plant native? Who first ‘discovered’ and named it? When does it bloom? What animals and insects use it for food or shelter?”
Gardening is such a powerful learning medium that it can be taught to any age and any child. Even a 1-year-old child can be introduced to the garden.
“With toddlers up through preschool it’s not necessary to have a project,” says Barbara Richardson, editor of Kidsgardening.org for the South Burlington, Vermont-based National Gardening Association. She notes that her website has ideas for garden activities that involve children at different stages of development. “With very young children, engage their tactile senses – dig holes, touch plants and taste food crops,” she says. “It also works well to relate those outdoor adventures to favorite books like Eric Carle’s ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’”
Brueggerhoff agrees that the first four or five years of a child’s life should focus on exploration in the garden. “With kindergarteners and preschoolers you can explore pattern recognition and discuss the various shapes you see in the garden,” he says. “You can also start with seeding activities.”
The idea at this early stage simply is to get the children outdoors with you, says Dannenmaier, who lives in Galveston, Texas. “It’s important for adults to garden during their child’s growing-up years and create a complex outdoor environment that enables the children to grow up feeling an affinity for the natural world – and thus an inclination to preserve it in their adult years,” she says. “The very youngest children love to help water, dig, hide underneath a weeping mulberry tree and push a wheelbarrow.”
As children get older and become elementary-school students, garden projects become a big draw, such as building a sunflower house or bean tepee, says Richardson, who notes that any structure that can be made from plants and provide privacy will be a hit.
“The best projects are those that the parents are enthusiastic about carrying out, bringing the children into the project through their own excitement,” says Dannenmaier. Theme gardens also have high appeal, she adds, noting that her book has plant lists for a variety of gardens, including sundial garden, alphabet garden, fairy garden, Peter Rabbit garden, sea garden, Wizard of Oz garden, fragrance garden and ethnic garden.
As children hit middle school, they have the capacity to learn more abstract concepts outside of their own backyard, such as the larger habitat and their place in it, says Brueggerhoff. How plants survive and reproduce are also good subjects. Use the garden as a laboratory for learning concepts they are studying in science, math and other subjects. Krezel agrees, saying, “You also can teach kids chemistry, genetics, multiplication … it’s endless.”
Gardening with children can be done in any size garden or even in containers when land is unavailable.
“You don’t need a large space for a child’s garden,” says Bennett. “A vacant 10’ x 15’ space will do, or even a patio where you can place a pot or planter box. You can teach children gardening with a cup on a windowsill. Just match your plans to your space.”
Starting out small is actually preferable. “Avoid overloading yourself or your child with high expectations in terms of volume when it comes to a new garden,” says Richardson. “A container garden with edible flowers will do. In a large container you can even grow a bean tepee.”
When land is available, Richardson likes to use the square-foot gardening method because it clearly delineates where things go, and there is a limit to how much you can plant in each square. In this method of gardening, a bed is divided into square-foot spaces, beds are easy to access from each side, and different seeds or plants are grown in each space.
When choosing plant materials and projects for the garden, always think safety first. Make certain that all garden tools are designed for young children. Use organic fertilizers correctly and the least-toxic methods for controlling pests and diseases. Teach children about beneficial insects and preserving them.
Knowing the potential toxicity of plants in your garden is also critical, says Dannenmaier. Although children’s deaths from garden-plant poisoning are rare, a number of the most common garden plants can be fatal if ingested in large enough quantities, according to Dannenmaier.
“Some, such as the castor-bean seed, can kill a child who eats even one of them. Many plants have parts that are poisonous, such as the bulb (amaryllis and daffodil), seeds (apple, wisteria, privet and morning glory), leaves (apple, privet and yew), berries (holly and privet) and pods (wisteria).”
In Texas, some native plants that have toxic parts are coyotillo (Karwinskia humboldtiana), milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis and others), silverleaf nightshade (Solanum eleageanifolium), Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), buckeyes (Aesculus spp.) and pokeweed (Phytolaca americana).
Other than enforcing safety issues, just about anything goes in the garden, and the more lax you can be the more your kids will enjoy the experience.
“There are few things more natural to children than getting dirty in the garden,” says Krezel. “Most children love to see how nature works, feel dirt, touch and smell plants. Allow your children to pick a lot of flowers or make mistakes and over-water. They’ll learn a love of being in the garden, which is the most important lesson of all.”
Giving children a sense of ownership over their garden is important, agrees Richardson. “Encourage their input about what type of garden you’ll plant,” she says. “If they’re old enough, up the ante and give them full ownership and responsibility for their own garden plot, which teaches important life lessons.”
Always remember the purpose for a children’s garden, adds Seagraves. “A child’s garden is not intended to be perfectly manicured for a beautiful display but rather as a learning center and place to escape, even for the youngest child.”
Written by Julie Bawden Davis