BY JODI DEE
Gardening is a wonderful way not only to introduce children to the world of science, but to the complexity of the environment and the cycle of life itself. Some of our greatest memories as children are of playing outside in the dirt, making mud pies, or just splashing in puddles.
Studies have shown that many adult gardeners recall vivid, positive memories of playing and exploring in gardens -- inspiring gardening later in their life and an increased appreciation for the environment.
Planting a tiny seed and watching it manifest into a plant, then into a bountiful harvest of cucumbers or tomatoes is a magical experience for any age. When children plant their first seeds, curiosity is piqued and they can't wait to see what will happen next. Children will check in and watch with anticipation each day, as the seeds grow, monitoring with determination life unfolding.
Children will discover which plants need more sunlight, more water, and through trial and error, how long different plants take to grow based on small changes (often through failure). Some seeds and plants will develop mold from too much water and become sick. Some plants will drown or dry out and the plant will wilt and die, and more.
Gardening offers wonderful scientific experiments and hands-on lessons right at home! As children get older and start learning about science in school, they can apply the knowledge to gardening, such as the impact of sunlight and water on the growth of a plant (photosynthesis).
A study showed that fifth grade students who participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests than students who had a curriculum without garden experiences.
Children learn through hands-on experience the seven steps of the scientific process:
-Making an observation
While gardening, children engage all of their senses, providing a deep sensory experience, using fine and gross motor skills. Children touch and feel the dirt and different types of seed and plants, smell the amazing scents of dew, wet dirt, blooming flowers, and fruits, herbs, or vegetables, witness and see the seeds, flowers, vibrant colors, and various sizes and shapes of plants and produce, listen to the plants blow in the wind or the rustling sounds while harvesting the bounty.
Proper nutrition and eating healthy foods is vital for brain and physical development. By having children grow their own foods, from string beans to cucumbers, or carrots to lettuce, they establish a sense of pride in consuming what they produced and "created." Being able to eat what you grow is an incredible experience to learn the power and cycle of life (growth, consumption, waste). Plus, studies have shown that children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh vegetables and fruits, and show a preference for those foods.
In today's world of instant gratification, gardening can teach patience and hard work, and the rewards of that process. Waiting and watching for flowers to bloom, herbs to mature, or fruits or vegetables to become ripe is exhilarating when it's finally time to taste the first green bean or tomato.
Teachable Moments While Gardening
There are many ways and opportunities to teach while gardening with children! Have children:
-Select which vegetables, fruits, herbs, to plant and eat
-Grow pumpkins through the summer to harvest in the fall (carving your own Jack-o-lanterns is very rewarding)
-Count the seeds needed to sustain the right volume of produce (for example, plant two cucumber plants for each person in a household)
-Measure and estimate the depth of the soil for the different seeds
-Map out and plan each row of seeds; how many, where they should go, and how far apart they must be
-Make signs or stakes to mark which plants are which (see our DIY idea for Wooden Spoon Garden Stakes)
-Create and use a calendar for watering and monitoring the growth
-Measure and document the growth of the different types of plants (see if they are on schedule)
-Count, measure, and compare the sizes of the vegetables or fruits, or the number of petals on the flowers
-Identify all the different colors and shapes that can be found in the garden
-Discuss concepts like pollution, pesticides, recycling
-Share seeds and the harvest with friends, family, or neighbors
-Form a compost pile to discard waste (also start composting table food waste after meals)
-Discuss decomposition and which foods can be composted and which cannot
-Harvest seeds from the fruits and vegetables for next year
-Join a gardening club or online forum
-Sort and store next season's harvest
Children love to garden with their parents or family members. Growing food as family provides a wonderful bonding opportunity. Together, families can decide what fruits, herbs, or vegetables to plant and where to plant them. Families can work together to plan and make meals using all they have grown. It is also extremely rewarding for children to share their harvest with family members, neighbors (which promotes social and emotional development), or even sell in a little basket outside the house! Gardening can become a spring tradition that carries into adulthood.
When children garden, they realize how important nature is, how fragile and delicate life is, learn to care for the Earth and grow healthy plants.
Along with all the wonderful learning opportunities and experiences for children while gardening, the greatest of all are the significant health benefits of being outside regularly in fresh air and sunshine, and simply playing in dirt!
Gardening is a wonderful experience for all ages: to be outside, to gain an appreciation for nature and the environment, appreciate the bounty of Earth, and participate in the cycle of life!