Obesity is running rampant in our country with childhood obesity rates climbing in epic proportions. And we know exercise and plenty of fruits and vegetables in our diet helps control obesity, right? The garden is just that, a place full of healthy things to eat and lots of opportunity for movement. Other diseases are on the rise for children as well and it’s been proven in study after study that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk for many illnesses such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and heart problems. But it’s not always easy to get children to eat fruits and vegetables. For me, this is especially true if I have a day care child that eats mostly highly processed foods at home. Processed foods are not only full of chemicals, but they are very high in salt and sugar which dull the taste buds of the people who consume them. So fruits and vegetables may not taste strongly enough for those children to enjoy eating them. But children are 80% more likely to try a food they grew themselves. And they are even more likely to want to try something they helped prepare or cook. So growing our own food and letting the kids help cook it is the best way to get kids to try something new they wouldn’t otherwise. Hands on is the best way for people to learn anything, so it makes sense that the more hands on the kid’s meals are, the more they will be interested in them.
Another reason growing food with the kids will help improve their diet is the flavor. The flavor of freshly picked produce far exceeds that of produce that was picked across the country or world and shipped to our grocery stores. The time it sits in boxes in the truck traveling is time that it’s loosing nutrition and flavor. In addition, the kinds of veggies and fruits that will ship well aren’t always the variety that is tastiest. Here, we don’t have to worry how our heirloom tomatoes will ship, we just have to worry about carrying them into the kitchen 50 feet away.
I have seen kids each year we’ve been growing food come in as a new student in the fall and not eat much of anything I serve, but by Christmas time they are trying many new things. And usually by the time they leave here they eat far more variety of healthy choices. You have to be patient with them and let them try at their own pace though. Don’t badger them to try it, just offer it and see what happens. A new food must be introduced 11 times before it is no longer new, so be prepared to continue to offer it and don’t give up. Their good health is worth it!
So besides making their bodies healthier when they eat healthy produce and get the physical activity working in the garden provides, what other benefits are there to gardening with kids? The garden is an amazing place full of learning for all of us. I could never list them all. There are a myriad of sensory experiences in the garden. Think about the way a tomato plant smells, or a fresh cantaloupe. Obviously there are a diversity of flavors that come from the garden. The feel of a prickly okra plant or a soft leaf of an herb. Listening in the garden brings a multitude of amazing sounds. You can hear birds chirping, the wind blowing through the leaves and stems of the plants. It’s almost overwhelming to think of all the colors, shapes, and interesting things there are to see in the garden. The more our senses are stimulated the more we learn, even as adults.
We learn math in the garden. We count seeds, and veggies, we measure how tall our plants are, or how much water they need. We measure how close together seeds need to be or how deep they should be planted. We sort seeds by size and color and shape. We count how many peas are in a pod or seeds in a tomato. We read seed packets, make garden markers and learn a plethora of vocabulary including entomology, botany, germination, metamorphosis, life cycle, and the list goes on and on. The science in the garden is immeasurable. We learn how a seed germinates, how strong a seedling can be, how insects and wind pollinate. And we watch caterpillars hatch and grow and change into butterflies, we learn about beneficial and harmful insects. We learn about what animals do in the garden. We learn about animal and insect habitats and life cycles.
I am amazed every day at what I personally learn in the garden, and teaching the kids these things is one of my greatest pleasures. Plus I know I am teaching them skills they can use throughout life. I have heard countless stories from my day care parents about how the kids were identifying butterfly species for them at home or how they showed them which plants should be planted with other plants to keep bugs away from their crops, or how they identified a beneficial insect in the garden. It’s a great feeling to know I am teaching whole families and a future generations these things. And everything we do is 100% organic in our garden, so those organic methods are being shared as well.
It would certainly be easier to grow the garden without the kids. Things would look neater, and be more precise, but taking the time to teach them how to do it correctly is so worth the time. I’ve learned a lot of patience throughout the process and I can even see the older kids learning patience as they see the younger kids doing things that frustrate them. But we are all learning together and it’s making the world a better place.
If you work with kids in any way, I encourage you to try growing something with them. Even if you just have a five gallon bucket with a tomato plant growing in it, you will be surprised at how much you can learn and teach with just that. It is worth your time and effort, I promise!