Want to know a dirty little secret? Those mud pies your children make may be keeping them healthier. OK, maybe they shouldn’t be eating them, but exposure to the microbes in soil strengthens their immune system. As a parent, you might assume your toddler or small child will get in the way and make gardening impossible, but kids are, in fact, natural gardeners.
Whether you have a massive yard or an apartment with a small patio, you can garden with your child. Cultivating your child’s green thumb offers benefits far beyond an engaging activity. Gardening builds developmental skills and provides lifelong benefits. Here are some facts and tips on why and how you should garden with your kiddo.
Why Garden With Your Child?
Gardening is a bonding activity that creates positive parent-child experiences. As your child learns to love growing things, you learn more about your child. Working in the garden together reveals how your children think, what their preferences are, and will show off their capabilities. Children who garden demonstrate increased self-understanding, interpersonal skills, and are better able to work in groups.
Working in a garden helps to exercise cognitive skills — memory, analyzing information, and predicting the outcome of situations. Asking questions about preparing soil, planting, weeding and watering will stimulate your child’s brain. The clear, direct cause and effect relationships within a garden nurture these skills.
Improved Diet and Nutrition
Growing your own food makes your child more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. This is partly due to the anticipation of eating food they’ve grown, but also the improved flavor of fresh-picked produce. The healthier eating habits they acquire can last a lifetime.
Doctors have long theorized that the trend toward sterilized environments is responsible for the uptick in childhood allergies and asthma. Even if you don’t believe that’s true, science shows that getting outdoors and digging in the dirt exposes kids to microbes and builds up their defenses against illness.
Increased Academic Aptitude
Students who participate in garden projects score higher on science achievement tests than those who do not. Learning plant names can help with literacy, and making visual maps of the garden increases spatial awareness.
How to Garden With Your Child
There’s no need to go overboard: You can create a simple garden of only a few choice plants to get started. Plant foods you know your child likes, and at least one to experiment with. Even in a small space, you can grow a child-friendly container crop of strawberries or a cherry tomato vine.
Build on a Strong Foundation
Children, trees and gardens all have one thing in common: to thrive, they need the right conditions early on. Use high-quality seeds and soil. If you purchase starter plants, buy the healthiest plants you can find. Follow the instructions for when to sow seeds, and make sure you plant them in a location with enough sunlight.
Take your time gardening with your child, and explain everything you are doing together. Give younger children and toddlers simple tasks that they enjoy and can easily accomplish. Use your time in the garden for teaching and experiencing, and turn mistakes into learning experiences.
Gardening with your child offers a wide array of benefits. And if you play your cards right, you’ll end up with delicious fruits and vegetables to eat. So get out there and start growing and see where it takes you.
Connie Pelton is a retired teacher who spends most weekends gardening with her grandchild. Together, they built and planted an indoor vertical garden wall taller than both of them.