Grow a garden; Grow your child

Grow a garden; Grow your child

You don’t have to look hard to see signs of joy while gardening with children. It can be in their purple fingertips as they pick mulberries, or in their gasps as they see the first tomato of the season. It’s in their intrigue as they open up the compost bin, or see a worm wriggle to its home. It’s in that first bite of a nectarine, picked fresh from the tree, the sweet juice covering their smiling lips.

Yes, joy is easy to find, but dig a little deeper, as it were, and you will find even richer evidence of learning when children have the opportunity to be in the garden.

When it comes to nature play and nature connection, a garden is one of the quickest and most tangible ways to start the journey. Many people ask me how they can get their children interested in the natural world and one of my answers will always be to start a garden.

A garden doesn’t have to be beautifully constructed beds from old railway sleepers, or acres and acres of lush vegetables, goodness knows that very few of us have the space, capability or knowledge for that.

A garden in this context means anything that works for you. It could be a collection of pots on your balcony, it could be ONE pot on your balcony. It could be a community garden you walk past every day and have always wanted to go into. It could be the bed of herbs at your local café. It could literally be that bag of seeds you saved from woollies from their promotion a while ago. Whatever a “garden” looks like to you, will be perfect for your child.

Now, you don’t have to be a green thumb to know the general process of planting seeds, caring for them, raising them and eventually reaping the rewards of your labour, but it’s this process, and every little twist and turn that makes up the journey from seed to fruit that contains intense learning and benefits for your child.

Let’s start from the beginning. Soil contains microbes which, when interacted with in a healthy and safe way, can strengthen your child’s immune system greatly. Not only this, the vitamin D from the sun is so very good for your little one’s skin (in healthy doses). And you haven’t even pulled out the gloves and shovels yet!

When you plant that first seed, watch your child focus on using their fine motor skills not to drop it. They will gently place it in the prepared soil and carefully cover it over so it is warm and safe, this ability to care for things other than themselves will come in handy a great many times in their life. Water in the tiny seed and just wait for the questions; “where did the water go?” “will it grow tonight?” “why can’t I hear it growing?” (all real questions I’ve had while gardening). This verbalisation and inquiry links to such strong cognitive processing and indicates that your child is thinking a lot more about what is just in front of them.

Then the first tiny shoot emerges. Your tiny human meets your tiny plant, and they are both filled with joy. The days/weeks/months of waiting has taught your child resilience and patience, and the recognition that not everything happens on their terms. They have discovered that if you nurture something, no matter how futile it may seem, changes are often happening under the surface. This is when the journey can take many turns.

I am going to admit this now, but my own daughter has pulled many a fresh plant out of its soil. Is this a gardening fail…at the time it certainly feels like it! But no, it is not. You see, children experiment by touching, prodding, pulling, twisting, squishing. Your little scientist is learning about this new thing by experiencing it for themselves. It is in these moments that we can choose to get angry, or we can choose to educate our child about what is necessary for the plant to grow. It’s also a good reason to plant more than one seed at a time!

As the plant gets bigger and stronger, your child will take on responsibilities of watering and caring for the plant. They will befriend it and speak to it. They will keep the weeds at bay and make sure it is mulched appropriately. This is the beginnings of a responsible little person. When children have the chance to care for something and see the results of that care directly in front of them, it is a powerful thing.

Delayed gratification is a big part of gardening, and a very valuable lesson to learn, but when that first sign of fruit or veggie or something edible appears, your child will know it has all been for a reason. The cycle is reaching its end point, and your child hasn’t even finished learning yet!

When the time comes to pull out the carrot, reach for the lemon, uncover the potatoes, snip off the lettuce or twist off the corn, it will be the greatest day of your child’s life. They have been a part of this cycle and have seen how the concepts of growth actually work. This direct learning about concepts is so important, because your child will learn how to transfer that knowledge into other parts of their life.

Then, you get to eat it! Do you have a fussy eater? Watch how quickly your child will scoff a radish if they’ve grown it themselves. They may like it, they may not, and even if they DON’T try it, they are one step closer to doing so. The preparation of food also brings with it so many more opportunities to learn.

I haven’t even mentioned how your child will develop an understanding of food origins, animal life, relationships between living things, weather patterns, water conservation, temperature, time, height and size.

This doesn’t have to stop with edible plants, it can simply be a flower that you are growing in your garden. The day a bee or a butterfly arrives to honour your flower will be one that your child remembers.

You may be thinking “that’s all well and good, but you don’t know my child, they’ll just tip out the soil or forget about their plant and it will just end up being a hassle”. I promise you, no time spent in a garden is wasted. Take a lesson from nature itself, good things take time. Involve your children in gardening as a constant thing, make growing food normal for them. Make stopping to smell flowers an everyday thing. Make calling out the fruit trees you find in your neighbourhood a fun game. For in these small but mighty connections we can make, will come not only a chance for each and every one of our children’s skills to be developed, but for our collective world to breathe a sigh of relief, because these children when they become adults will know it once again.

Hamish Tait

Father of 2, Wild Earthlings founder/facilitator and educator at Fit Kidz Learning Centres

All stories by: Hamish Tait