With so many activities on children’s’ academic and social radar its easy to overlook one of the most rewarding pursuits available to them – gardening. At it’s core, gardening represents a change of pace: a way of taking children out of a conventional classroom or indoor setting to connect with, and discover, the natural world and all its diversity. Unfortunately, amongst the constant distraction of social media, and the pace and pressure of both school and home life, the benefits of gardening can get lost amongst the noise.
It’s easy to pique children’s interest in gardening – if you don’t have a garden yourself, you may have access to a few plants or a small soil bed, or your child’s school may have a plot of dedicated land. In fact, gardening is becoming an increasingly popular school activity: at St George’s School in Edinburgh, the gardening club is not only as a way to teach students about nature, but to give back to the local community – and even raise money for charity.
With that in mind, don’t let the rewards of gardening pass your children by: think about what you want them to get out of their gardening time – whatever age they are, and whatever shape their garden takes – and how the positive benefits might enhance their lives.
- Accessibility: Gardening is inclusive and accessible and possible in almost every corner of the country, whether it takes place in homes, in schools, or in public parks. Gardening is especially accessible for children, since the skills it requires cover a wide spectrum – with challenges and opportunities for every age and ability. Practically, this makes gardening an interesting option for children with mobility or learning disabilities – whether their task is simply tending to plants and flowers, or observing the insects and wildlife that visit the garden.
- Affordability: Gardens don’t have to be expansive stretches of lawn, or elaborately designed landscaping projects – they could take up the corner of a yard, or comprise a simple row of potted plants. The point is, children’s gardening projects don’t have to break the bank, and are affordable for both schools and homes. That said, there are over 27,000 public parks in the UK, so if children do want to experience a more ambitious gardening activity, contact a local authority to see what kind of organised events might be on the calendar.
- Responsibility: Simple gardening activities, such as planting seeds, feeding and watering plants, weeding, and pruning, are all connected in the sense that they maintain a larger, more complicated ecosystem. Ultimately, gardening is about keeping balance within that ecosystem – if ignored, or treated poorly, plants quickly wither and die. By getting kids gardening, they learn about their role in the ecosystem, and the importance of taking responsibility for the tasks they’re assigned.
- Effort & Achievement: Gardening is one of the best ways to see the results of hard work. Whether children are engaged in the intricate process of seeding, growing and cultivating plants and flowers, or even just mowing the grass, gardening tasks promise tangible, visible results over both the short and long term. Seeing those results helps children appreciate how success is earned, and how putting in an amount of effort translates into achievement.
- Flora & Fauna: Gardens are not only a haven for plant life but also draw insects and wildlife – all of which feed children’s natural curiosity, and offer the chance to learn lessons about biology, physiology and more. Children who garden inevitably gain a greater familiarity with this spectrum of biodiversity but also learn important lessons about the natural world which may be useful in many other aspects of their lives. Set children to work analysing the bugs which make their home amongst the leaves and flowers, or instead ask them to pick the perfect species of flower to thrive in the local climate and environment.
- Problem Solving: Most gardens present their gardeners with an array of challenges – and are an ideal setting in which to practise problem solving skills. From aphids, to soil erosion, garden challenges often take children out of their comfort-zone, and are an entirely different proposition to the kinds of problems they might encounter in domestic or classroom setting…meaning, of course, that the solutions require different approaches and unfamiliar skills.
- Confidence-building: Working in a garden allows children to innovate, take risks, and test their skills in a safe and controllable environment. Regardless of the ultimate success or failure of their gardening endeavours, children will learn more about their own abilities, and develop the confidence to use them. It’s not hard to find confidence-affirming garden activities for any age group – from the simple act of nurturing a plant to life, to helping with larger projects, such as cutting down a tree, or digging up a flowerbed.
- STEM Skills: It may not seem immediately obvious, but research shows that gardening has a positive effect on children’s achievement in scientific fields. In fact, the entire STEM skillset is served by gardening – which involves calculation, research, observation and experimentation, and direct engagement with biology, physics and chemistry. Older children may even be able to indulge any burgeoning engineering interest, by getting experience using technical equipment like mowers or clippers – under the appropriate supervision.
- Socialisation: Studies have shown that – for children in particular – gardening activities impart important social skills. By participating in gardening as a group, as a class, or with friends, children learn to develop those interpersonal skills by helping and teaching others, working as a team, and overcoming challenges. Of course, when the work is done, gardens are also one of the best places for children to socialise, relax or play games.
- Family Bonding: Gardening with children represents an increasingly rare opportunity for families to spend uninterrupted quality time together – free from distractions like television and social media. Given the sheer variety of potential garden tasks which require cooperation and communication, it should be easy for parents to find fun and exciting things to do together with children of any age – and so deepen the family bond.
- Physical Activity: Encouraging children to exercise, or finding the time for it, can be difficult, especially when families also have to juggle work and school schedules, and domestic duties. Research has shown that gardening has direct health benefits on children: by participating in dynamic tasks like weeding, digging, lifting and carrying, children get to move around, raise their heart-rates, and receive a moderate full-body workout without ever setting foot in the gym.
- Psychology: There’s a strong therapeutic benefit to gardening which translates to a calming, relaxing effect amongst children. The psychological benefits of gardening have been studied widely: research shows that not only do individuals who spend time in a garden experience a reduction in the stress-hormone cortisol, but the effects of gardening itself continue long after the activity has finished. Encouraging children to participate in the garden offers them a healthy, stress-reducing alternative to television and social media diets, and a meditative respite from the potential pressures of their academic lives.
- Conservation: Children may not get many opportunities to engage with the natural world, so in the moments that they do it’s important to use the experience to teach them about conservation. You don’t need a swathe of animal-dense grassland to teach conservation principles to a child: small potted plants can harbour colonies of insect life, while most flowers attract bees and birds for pollination. Whatever the size and scope of their garden environment, children can use it to learn about, and protect, the fragility of the natural world within the context of their activities.
- Crafting Skills: Amongst the diversity of tasks and activities involved in gardening, is the chance for children to hone their crafting skills. Garden crafting activities come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from building insect houses and bird-feeders, to arranging elaborate flower displays, and even sculpting with plants and trees. Learning to use tools and materials in garden craft projects is an ideal way to teach children practical skills – which can easily feed into other domestic talents, or even into certain academic pursuits.
- Design & Planning: The process of designing, planning, and building a garden can be just as illuminating as the act of gardening itself. Practically, children might be asked to set aside a part of an outdoor space to serve as their garden, plot sections of an existing garden to grow a particular plant or flower, or even design a garden around a certain theme or to serve a specific function. Alternatively, they might have to think about how certain food plants might grow – or when the best time to plant and harvest them would be.
- Creativity: Kids’ gardening projects aren’t just about getting hands dirty and spending time outdoors, they’re also a chance to encourage creativity and self-expression. Kids can indulge their creative side in the garden in a variety of ways, adding colour, beauty, and character to the space with elaborate flower displays, placing eye-catching water features and ornaments, or even by fashioning larger installations like willow sculptures and weavings.
- Growth & Development: Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of gardening for kids is that the possibilities inherent in it can grow and develop as they do, keeping them engaged and interested over many years. While very young children might be tasked with watering or planting, older children can become involved in more complex activities, learning new skills, and using different tools or equipment. Ultimately, the passion children develop for gardening is something they might pass on to their own kids – keeping the positive momentum rolling for a new generation.
Paula Sinclair has held a passion for the outdoors from an early age, and brings her experience and expertise to her position as Curriculum Leader of Outdoor Learning for St George’s school for Girls in Edinburgh. Trained and accredited in a variety of bushcraft skills and disciplines, Paula works to pass on her knowledge the young women she teaches, and develop the educational possibilities of the school’s outdoor spaces.