“But mommy, I don’t like vegetables. They’re yucky!”
Heard that before? Parents engaged in the battle over good nutrition keep many tricks in their arsenal, from dishonesty (sneaking in the veggies) to bribery (you want dessert don’t you?) and worse. But if you really want to get a child excited about eating healthy food, nothing beats a garden.
Recent studies involving children lucky enough to experience food gardens at their school confirm that those who grow their own are more willing to eat—and even request—fresh fruits and vegetables at home. This willingness is a critical first step in developing healthy eating patterns and preventing childhood obesity, which has tripled in the last thirty years.
Amy Belkora, garden teacher to kindergardeners through 3rd graders at the San Francisco Waldorf School, witnesses this phenomena often: Parents are so grateful and amazed when their kids report eating (and liking) foods like kale cooked with coconut oil and raisins from our school garden. ”I just know the parents write that down and later prepare it at home.”
The health benefits of gardening with kids, both at school and at home, go far beyond nutritious food. “Gardens give our children—who have become increasingly urban in their environment and, consequently in their actions and attitudes—a chance to be outdoors,” Belkora said, “and provide an opportunity for meaningful work.”
Belkora believes kid’s garden tasks should be laborious, in a good way. “I’m always thinking of things the children can carry, or sieve, or dig, or push.” Gardening is great exercise in general, and many activities, such as pushing a wheel barrow or raking leaves, work with a child’s balance and have them ‘crossing the midline’—movements proven necessary for a child’s brain development. Occasionally, Belkora must devise random tasks to keep all her students moving on the small city plot, a borrowed backyard corner of a nearby nursing home. “I have to laugh sometimes,” Belkora said, “because I’ll have students move a large pile of rocks across the garden one day, just to have the next day’s group carry them back.”
Surprisingly, all this busy work often brings with it a grounding effect, a welcome calm, in young gardeners. Studies at the University of Illinois even claim that spending time in nature, especially green spaces, actually relieves children from their symptoms of ADD and ADHD. Kids are better able to concentrate and pay attention after they’ve spent some time tuning in to the natural world with all their senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. For this reason alone, young gardeners should never wear gloves. “I’m a firm believer in dirty hands,” Belkora said. “It builds up antibodies and toughens the skin.”
In addition to physical benefits, many garden activities such as turning a compost pile, feeding food scraps to worms, and collecting seeds, foster a child’s environmental awareness of the long journey of food from “seed to table.” A child who gardens is nothing less than a young earth steward. Chances are they’ll feel empowered as an adult to make healthy choices for themselves and the environment. As a herbalist, nurse, and author Dorie Byers warn us in her book Herbal Remedy Gardens: a garden requires nurturing and patience. “You can’t help but become a better person when you’re taking care of plants.”
So where’s a parent to start if you’re a beginner gardener yourself? Belkora suggests seeding a trellis of snap peas and sugar peas, or pole beans in warmer climates. Both are enchanting to kids because they grow quickly to the right height for children to access, and they produce a recognizable food that kids can enjoy fresh. Potatoes, which she suggests growing in a trench for the best yield, are another delightful and consistent crop for beginners. More committed gardeners might try growing grain to experience its extraordinarily long life cycle, and the reward when their child can thresh, winnow, grind, and ultimately, bake their harvest into a delicious treat.
In the end, what you plant in your garden matters less than the story you bring with it. “Blueberries or fennel, artichokes or carrots, I’m always looking for a hook,” Belkora said. “You just need that one interesting fact or personal story to spark a child’s excitement and help them build a rapport with that particular plant.