Get kids engaged, and they'll grow with gardening

"Look here," Jeremy instructed his friend. He handed him a magnifying glass on the table and pointed to the tray of seeds. "The corn is bigger than the peas."

His friend took the offered tool and used it to peer through at the seeds on the tray below. He nodded his head and they checked off the corn picture on their clipboards.

Jeremy and his friend are 4-year-olds in preschool, learning about seeds and how things grow. Quick interactions such as these help form the basis of gardening as an important skill for kids to have.

Various seedlings starting to grow in newspaper
pots made by 4 and 5-year-olds. Not only was making
newspaper pots fun, it was also a fine motor activity.
I work in a classroom during the day and I had the opportunity to assist our preschoolers with growing seeds this spring. Our teacher requested that parents send in seeds for the kids to explore, and the response was the best it has been in years. There were opportunities for kids to check out the seeds using magnifying glasses as well as growing them. It was so much fun (for me) to see the kids get excited about what they wanted to plant: pumpkin, squash, sunflowers, peas, beans, marigolds or lettuce. (The pumpkins were the most popular, followed by sunflowers.) And often they didn't want to be narrowed down to just one type of seed to grow, which meant more seed sowing! I brought in my newspaper pot maker and the older preschoolers were able to make their own pots to plant their seeds in (see the photo, above). They were really into it! I was also able to bring in two of my ivy geranium plants that I had overwintered and showed the kids how to take cuttings to make their own plants.

Three-year-olds colored their own plant labels
before planting their seeds.
These are just some examples that show how kids can get excited about gardening. A search online will reveal promising statistics as well: Children not only become more familiar with where food comes from when they grow it themselves, but they can also develop a love of nature, which is important in our technology age. (Read more here.) School gardens can help students with ADHD learn in different ways than they would in a classroom setting. But the most informative website I came across was KidsGardening.org. The nonprofit regularly provides grants, resources and curriculum to schools to promote gardening. Grant programs for the 2016-2017 school year are still being planned, and more information should be available by mid-summer.*

Sarah Pounders, education specialist for KidsGardening.org, cites numerous benefits children receive from gardening, such as building an understanding of and respect for nature and our environment. It also provides opportunities for hands-on learning, inquiry, observation and experimentation, she said.

"Gardening can be introduced at any age - parents should just make sure the activities they pick match the child's interest and personal development level," she said. "One of the most important things is getting kids engaged is to make sure they are active participants in the process, from planning to harvesting. They are truly invested when they are given responsibility for making decisions and for caring for the garden. They are not invested when all they get to do is look at the garden."**

Geranium cuttings in
the classroom.
In addition to motivating children to eat and love fruits and vegetables as well as promote physical activity and quality outdoor experiences, Pounders also cited a 2005 study by Lohr and Pearson-Mims that "found that gardening as a child was found to instill an appreciation and respect for nature that lasts into adulthood," she said. The study concluded that participation in active gardening during childhood shaped future perceptions of trees, and was the most important variable in explaining respondents' feelings that "trees have personal meaning." Lohr and Pearson-Mims also found that "horticultural programs for children can have great worth in helping children raised in urban surroundings with few or no plants."***

It doesn't take much to start
Cheli Cuevas, writer, producer and host of the Gild the Garden Show, also feels that gardening is an important life skill that should be included in school curriculum. "I remember learning cooking in school, why not gardening? Gardening teaches children patience, responsibility and helps instill in them a deep appreciation for the environment," she said.

A run through the rose gardens at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Conn.
Cuevas is a BookPALS, (Performing Arts for Literacy in Schools) participant, where union actors, performers and entertainers volunteer their time to read aloud in classrooms in elementary schools. Cuevas, an avid gardener, presents a horticultural angle to her class. "For instance, one day I read, Zinnia's Flower Garden, by Monica Wellington. Following the read, we planted zinnia seeds in the school garden," she said.

"If you have yet to try gardening with your children, do it as soon as possible. It doesn't take much to start: a container, soil and one seed is all," said Cuevas.

If there is no space available outside, Cuevas recommends gardening indoors, either with windowsill herbs or through fairy gardens. "I have yet to meet a child who hasn't instantly been drawn to it." Fairy gardens are miniature landscapes that include small plants and accessories. "Patios, paths and ponds are common in fairy gardens and the accessories can be made with natural elements like sticks and rocks gathered in nature. The opportunity for individual creativity is endless in miniature fairy gardening," she said. (To view some fairy garden ideas, visit the Gild the Garden YouTube channel.)

Ready to share the joy of nature with younger minds but there are no kids at home? "There are so many children in need of great teachers and role models," said Cuevas. "Consider volunteering with a local organization in need of awesome people like you!"

* To find out when the grant information for the 2016-2017 school year is available on KidsGardening.org, Pounders suggested subscribing to their blog or liking their Facebook account.

** To see an excerpt of KidsGardening Parents' Primer by Cheryl Dorschner explaining how different ages have varied levels of interaction, visit this link here.

*** Lohr, V.I. & Pearson-Mims, C.H. (2005). Children's active and passive interactions with plants influence their attitudes and actions toward trees and gardening as adults. HortTechnology. 15(3). 472-476.

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