Photograph by Ariel Skelley / Getty Images
Photograph by Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

How gardening can teach kids life skills

Plus, ideas to get them digging the garden.

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A few years ago, I stunned a young student in one of my gardening classes after telling him that he couldn’t actually grow pickles—only cucumbers. From that moment he craved to learn more.

Whether your garden is on a city windowsill or in a big backyard, getting kids involved in tending plants can be a powerful teaching tool for subjects like science, math, and reading. But the art of growing stuff can also promote important life skills in children. Here’s how your garden can grow responsibility, kindness, and other values in your kids.

Patience

Why your kid needs it: Being patient is something many children struggle with, but it can be an important factor in future school success. It also helps a kid stay calm in stressful situations, which promotes good mental health. “To most children, everything is in the moment,” says psychiatrist David Scott May of Mill Valley, California. “Life is a blend of immediate and delayed gratification, so children benefit from learning about both.”

How a garden helps: Good stuff comes at the end of a growing season—like yummy fruit or pretty flowers—but kids have to wait for it. For instance, a carrot seed can take between 70 and 80 days to mature.

How to grow it: Ease them into their new patient attitude with quick-to-sprout options like sunflowers and nasturtiums that germinate in about seven to 10 days; arugula can be ready to eat in five to seven days. For longer-growth plants, kids can create a garden journal to document the progress of their seedling with words, drawings, or photos.

Mindfulness

Why your kid needs it: Research shows that practicing mindfulness is a great stress reliever, even for children. “When kids realize that what’s happening ‘in the moment’ is personally affecting them, they become more self-aware,” says child therapist Jennifer Couture of Kentfield, California. “That helps strengthen qualities like empathy, kindness, appreciation, and generosity.”

How a garden helps: Working in a garden engages children with multiple sounds, smells, and sights. Activities that encourage kids to focus on all these at once can bring calm to their young minds. When kids are aware of what they’re thinking and noticing, “they realize they have the power to control their big feelings and thoughts,” Couture says.

How to grow it: Encourage kids to zone out while they’re doing a rote task such as watering or digging. (Bonus if you can get them to do it without headphones!) Engaging with multiple sensory experiences—the feel and smell of dirt, the sound and sight of water—helps them to focus on the moment, bringing them a sense of calm.

Kindness

Why your kid needs it: Studies suggest that children who are considered helpful go on to make better grades and achieve career success. And of course, kindness can help kids develop empathy—both toward others and themselves. “Being kind helps children develop positive relationships,” says psychologist Christine Curtin of Mill Valley, California. “It can also help them manage feelings of anxiety and depression.”

How a garden helps: When kids realize that a garden is full of living things that need their help to survive, they can develop a sense of caring and thoughtfulness.

How to grow it: Think about kind options to maintain a healthy garden, such as having kids plant garden helpers like thyme and tansy, which both have strong oils that deter pesky bugs like aphids and whiteflies. You can also help them release beneficial ladybugs to devour aphids on plants like roses.

Responsibility

Why your kid needs it: Children who see themselves as more responsible often feel empowered and confident. And learning to take responsibility for their choices teaches kids how to choose between right and wrong. “Teaching responsibility helps kids develop critical-thinking skills,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Tracy Asamoah of Austin, Texas. “Plus, they learn how to contribute to the greater good.”

How a garden helps: Maintaining any kind of garden—even a small window box—needs constant, long-term commitment and follow-through to make sure the plants thrive.

How to grow it: Put kids in charge of a single container or a small part of a bigger garden for which they’re totally responsible. Try theming the child’s area of the garden: for instance, one with herbs and vegetables you’ll use to make pizza.

Self-esteem

Why your kid needs it: Kids with positive self-esteem are more likely to try new things and overcome mistakes. “They’re more likely to reach for their goals despite setbacks,” says psychotherapist Laurie Javier of San Rafael, California. “They’re also more respectful of themselves and others.”

How a garden helps: Gardening brings children a sense of accomplishment after they’ve watched their plants go from seedling to food or flowers. And observing how one plant flourishes while another one doesn’t helps children learn from harmless mistakes.

How to grow it: To provide a boost of confidence, choose activities that provide a quick result of their hard work, such as weeding or pruning flowers. Another idea is to have them plant and care for a small tree, like a dwarf lemon, that will remind them of their achievement for a long time.