The Chicago middle school kids who garden with Natasha Nicholes at the urban farm she created are certainly focused on fun—sometimes so much that they don’t realize they’re taking in life skills, too.
“Kids who get involved in gardening gain confidence,” says Nicholes, who started the We Sow We Grow Project in 2016 with her husband to teach gardening skills to neighborhood families. “They gain an appreciation for slowing down and enjoying life as it comes, instead of rushing the process.”
Studies have shown that early exposure to nature can lead to better mental health as adults. And “nature” can include a garden. “Whether it's on the windowsill, in the backyard, around your apartment building, or at school, the garden is an opportunity to nurture good mental health in our kids,” says Cam Collyer, senior advisor at Evergreen in Toronto.
But besides improving mental health, gardening can teach kids valuable social and executive function skills, everything from patience to perseverance to understanding different perspectives.
The key is to make kids active gardeners instead of just something they observe a parent do. “Kids are really drawn to a garden if it's set up properly and they're given the right invitation—not just to watch, but really to participate,” Collyer says.
While some of the lessons from gardening are obvious (watering a plant every day teaches responsibility, for example), others might be less so. Here are a few unexpected life skills your children might learn from gardening, plus ways you can keep them excited about digging in the dirt.
What gardening grows in kids
Curiosity. Collyer says when kids are set free in a garden, curiosity follows. And that leads them to ask important questions: “How does this work? What makes up the soil? How does the plant grow? Why are there different seeds of different shapes?”
And though the answers might aid in science class, Collyer says the bigger gain here is the self-directed motivation for learning. “When an activity is compelling, ongoing, and changing, the motivation for learning goes up,” he says, advising parents to encourage kids to ask questions and work independently (or with a little help) to find the answers.
Focus. Classrooms often require kids to focus intensely, but when they’re in natural settings like a garden, that focus relaxes and recharges. “There's this very comfortable, soft focus that happens when you're in a natural setting,” Collyer says.
That, he says, allows kids to better focus when they return to tasks like reading or math, adding that it’s why forest bathing and outdoor classrooms have grown in popularity. “The garden is a microcosm of the forest,” Collyer says.
Appreciation. Gardeners love to throw around the saying “Kids who grow their vegetables, eat their vegetables.” And Collyer says it’s true—harvesting the garden teaches kids to appreciate the cycles that come from hard work and help them better appreciate the tasty results.
Parents can add to the appreciation by encouraging kids to think about how plants affect other things, whether it’s providing shade for humans or snacks for insects. “A garden is not just about plants,” says Jennifer Reynolds, editor in chief at Harrowsmith magazine. “It’s about all the living creatures that come in and out of it, too.”
Decision making and problem solving. Collyer says that kids should be doing as much of the planting, watering, and harvesting as they can, with adults along for guidance and supervision. “That sense of ownership is really important,” he says. “This is where the process can be more important than the product."
Feeling empowered by tending a garden gives kids the confidence to make their own decisions and solve problems. For instance, when caterpillars threatened the tomatoes in Nicholes’ garden, it was the neighborhood kid-gardeners who came up with a plan. “Instead of pulling the caterpillars off and dropping them in soapy water, they figured we could make our chickens happy by providing them with a treat,” she recalls.
Patience and resilience. Sometimes the garden doesn’t grow. Or a plant is mistaken for a weed and pulled by accident. Dealing with disappointment and finding the resolve to try again are important lessons, too, Nicholes says. “It’s what creates well-rounded folks.”
Getting kids ready to garden
Have a reluctant gardener, or just want to get kids excited for the task? Try one of these techniques.
Set a recurring time. Make sure everyone knows when it’s time to play in the garden by setting a specific time each week. And make sure devices—theirs and yours—aren’t invited. “When parents do this together with kids, it sticks and is way more fun,” Reynolds says.
Bring a blindfold. A scarf or necktie tied loosely around a child’s eyes can transform the garden from a bunch of green leaves into a sensory experience. “Blindfolds open up the other senses,” Collyer says. Smell the flowers, touch the furry leaves (steer clear of prickles!), and feel the different shapes of stems.
Plan a scavenger hunt. Reynolds suggests writing garden treasures on a recyclable paper bag, then using the bag to collect the goodies. Some ideas:
• One leaf from a stalk with no flowers, and another leaf from a stalk with a bloom
• Dirt from the tallest plant in the garden
• Seeds from three different plants
• An “ugly” fruit or veggie that looks a bit bizarre—but will still taste delicious
Use nature’s crayons. All those green leaves might be hiding a colorful surprise. Collyer often takes kids into the garden with white stock paper in hand for an art project he calls Nature’s Palette. Start by having kids collect different leaves, a bit of soil, soft rocks, and bark from the garden. “And then you simply start rubbing whatever you’ve got into this canvas,” he says. “There's inevitably a surprise.”
Create a space. Instead of just helping you, offer children a space in the garden that’s all their own. Nicholes suggests letting them design the area (maybe decorating with things from around the garden or house) and choose the seeds or flowers they plant. No room in your garden? No problem. “Let them design a raised bed or container garden to see how things work together,” she says.
Eat the weeds. Collyer says kids can temper their urge to eat any not-quite-ready garden fruits or veggies by learning about edible weeds. “A great example lamb’s quarter, both delicious and nutritious,” he says. “Add an apple slice into this weed burrito and you’re on your way to nourishing bellies and educating young minds about the plant world.”
Visit other gardens. Exposing kids to different gardens can make them more aware of the way their community’s landscape works together. Take trips out to planned parks, public gardens, private gardens (with permission), and other places to observe how people are playing with plants. “It makes the idea of gardening more holistic,” Reynolds says. “Raising good nature lovers and good observers is what makes good gardeners—they notice what’s around them and build on it.”