Why You Should Teach Children to Garden

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When spring arrives, Carrie Woleben-Meade and her children pull out peat pellets and seeds. But instead of going outdoors to start their garden, the family heads over to the radiators in her Wilmette, Ill., home. 

The harvest will be greater than the pumpkins, tomatoes and nasturtiums that the family will pick. Wolebean-Meade says gardening has sparked an interest in science and nature.

“My son is really fascinated about the science part of [gardening],  and my daughter just loves the dirt and the worms,” she says. “She picks up the worms and she wants to bring them in the house, so we’ve started kind of a worm area that she puts them in.”

Gardening has long been considered the nation’s most popular hobby for adults. In the past 20 years, however, the hobby has been promoted among children. The National Gardening Association, a trade group, awards grants to agencies and institutions that construct vegetable gardens for children. The goal is to foster better nutritional habits by having youngsters grow the food they eat. Michelle Obama uses the tactic in her campaign against childhood obesity. In March 2012, for example, she drafted 24 fifth-graders to help replant the White House garden. Her book on the South Lawn garden – the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II – was published in 2012.

Wolebean-Meade agrees that the it’s important to teach children about the link between gardening and healthy food. “The children understand that food comes from the ground,” she says. “They’re more excited about eating vegetables.”

So are the children of Brittany Hurst who lives near Toledo, Ohio. She grew up gardening and is teaching the hobby to her three sons, who are 6, 4 and 1. 

“It gives a sense of responsibility for your food,” Hurst says. “When you see the work that goes into getting carrots, you have more appreciation for them.” 

Resources abound for adults who want to introduce gardening to children. The National Gardening Association has a parents’ primer at  www.kidsgardening.org. Check your state university or extension website for tips on gardening with children. 

Hurst and Wolebean-Meade give the following advice:

Don’t  limit children to the easiest tasks. Hurst includes her youngsters in the entire process, from planning to planting to pulling weeds. She takes the children along when she buys the seeds, and when she gets the soil out of her shed. “Do everything together because that’s how they’ll learn,” she says.

Find age-appropriate activities. Hurst has her sons gather sticks to make markers, or pull a stick through the ground to make furrows. For preschoolers, gardening might be limited to moving mulch or dropping seeds into the ground. Kidsgardening.org suggests having first- and second-graders read seed packets and pay for plants. The activities can turn into math and reading lessons.

Pick easy-to-grow plants. Wolebean-Meade says her children love growing zucchini and cherry tomatoes. Hurst adds carrots, peas and peppers to the list, along with sunflowers and black-eyed Susans. Pick plants that are prolific and require little care.

Remember to keep the children engaged. Wolebean-Meade always mixes flower and vegetables in her children’s garden. “Flowers give more consistent rewards.”

Hurst tries out unique varieties of her children’s favorite vegetables. Her children loved a purple variety of a green bean: “We call them squeaky beans, because when you cook them and then you eat them, they’re very squeaky.”

Be patient. Hurst reminds parents that children will be children. “They will trample your baby plants, and it will be a heartbreak,” she says. “I think learning together is going to make [the garden] more memorable and more fun.

Tags: children, Michelle Obama