We all know that getting children out into the garden for some sunshine and a bit of fresh air is good for them. Gardening in particular, teaches important life lessons – hard work, patience, responsibility. But, in fact, the benefits stretch far further.
Engaging with the natural world has a considerable role to play in childhood well-being and development according to Lucy Jones, author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild.
“From our heads to our toes, spending time with nature can affect our emotional and psychological lives,” Lucy explains. “The nervous system is more balanced in natural spaces. We’re more likely to recover from stress in nature. If we’re gardeners, beneficial microbes in the soil can enhance serotonin (the chemical in our brain that contributes to wellbeing and happiness), and the smell of the earth after it rains — which is called petrichor — affects the brain in mood enhancing ways. I could go on.”
Lucy’s book research led her to discover a robust science behind how crucial contact with the natural world is for our well-being, and how we’ve lost so much of that connection.
She found that children who have a relationship with nature are far more likely to retain that relationship as adults, which – in turn – has a really positive impact on quality of life.
So, we’ve established it’s most definitely a very good idea for you to get your kids gardening. It’s stress-relieving, mood-enhancing, life-lesson teaching, good old-fashioned fun. But where do you start?
Whatever space you have, from window sills to vast gardens, you can nurture your little ones’ green fingers. There’s no better time for it and we’ve reached out to several experts to help get you started.
Give children their own area of the garden
Let children choose what to grow and make them responsible their own area, with your supervision. Blue Peter’s gardening presenter Lee Connelly, aka The Skinny Jean Gardener, recommends making a ‘washing up bowl allotment’ which is exactly what it sounds like – an old washing up bowl filled with soil, and a few holes drilled or punctured for drainage. Lee recommends children should grow three plants in one bowl and they’re suitable for the garden or a sunny balcony:
“It’s just a really simple little allotment that they can grow in and every morning check to see if it needs watering. If they’ve got their own area they care about it a lot more,” he said.
The best seeds for children
Ben Raskin, Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association, recommends larger seeds like radish, as they’re easier for children to handle. Broad beans, peas and runner beans are: “pretty bomb proof”, according to Ben – almost always germinating.
But don’t feel limited. Lee says the most important thing when choosing what to grow is thinking about what kids love to eat or their favorite plants, and perhaps focusing in.
“You can have the most difficult thing to grow and if that’s the only thing you’re growing, you’re going to spend time with the kids looking up how to care for it, finding out information about it. You’re going to succeed in that way.”
Get older kids gardening with big projects
For pre-teens and teenagers, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Schools and Groups Program Manager Alana Cama recommends more heavy lifting.
“Look at a bigger project that you could do together as a family. Things like building a raised bed appeal more. Using larger tools feels a bit cooler and it’s nice to be able to teach them how to use those things.”
Lee suggests getting kids involved in the planning and design of the garden.
“If we want children to be outside in the garden with us, we’ve got to make them part of the whole thing – part of that design, telling us what they want, and helping build it.”
Incorporate craft activities into gardening
Not every day will be outdoor weather, but even indoors there are lots of craft activities kids can enjoy that are all part of the gardening experience.
Milk bottle watering cans are a simple and useful make. Alana recommends a one pint bottle for the littlest gardeners.
“Get the kids to decorate on the outside, pop some holes in the lid and then you’ve got a little watering can, which you can use for house plants or seedlings,” she said.
A biro or a sharp knife both work to make the holes, but it’s definitely a job for the grown ups.
Creating plant labels is another crafty task you could try. Lee advises drawing/painting on pictures of what the seeds will grow into, to get kids thinking about the process. He uses old spoons or stones, while Alana recommends more milk bottle recycling, this time cut into pieces for labels.
Try indoor gardening with mini grow-your-own
There is always room to grow something that can end up on your plate, which is so rewarding for all ages. Alana suggests small leafy edibles.
“Things like herbs are brilliant, or ‘micro veg’ – sow small varieties of lettuce or grow standard lettuce to a small size. You can call it a mini allotment on your window sill.”
Lee recommends tomato plants for windows and suggests growing them hanging upside down in a ‘Topsy Turvy Tomato planter’, as explained in his book How to Get Kids Gardening. This make uses an old plastic bottle with your tomato plant growing down through the neck and the roots growing up inside the bottle.
Cut the bottom of the bottle off, attach strings for the bottle to hang from and remove the lid. To stop everything falling through, first poke your sprouting tomato seedling through a hole in a piece of paper, then push the paper into the empty bottle neck with the seedling poking down and out. Finally, fill above the paper with soil.
Lee and his daughter also takes seeds from the tomatoes they grow, dry them out for a few days on a sheet of kitchen roll and then pop them in a brown paper bag for the next year.
“I think it’s a great way for kids to learn about sustainability and continue the growing experience,” he said.
Encourage wildlife in your garden
You can grow a space that encourages wildlife, says Lucy.
“Even a small patch can be turned into a world of wonder for wildlife. Sow wildlife-friendly flowers and plants – things like nasturtiums encourage caterpillars so you’ll get butterflies. Don’t mow for a bit to allow pollinator-friendly weeds to grow. Use height and grow things up the sides of fences and walls. ”
Lee recommends building a ‘bug hotel’ by filling a pot with garden waste or piling up logs.
“That’s an activity you can do as a family, and keep coming back to and seeing what bugs have visited.”
Ben says it’s important kids understand the function of different creatures in the life cycle, like woodlice clearing dead wood and adding to the soil.
“Wasps can be a pain, but actually, they’re one of life’s great recyclers, and most pollinate plants as well,” he said.
You can read the original article on Good Housekeeping.
Elena Chabo, 9 expert tips for gardening with kids, April 21st, 2020, https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/house-and-home/gardening-advice/a32169950/family-garden/