You’ve probably never heard someone argue that outdoor activities are harmful for children. There’s been an impressive amount of research in the last decade to suggest the exact opposite.
But it’s one thing to believe nature is good for your kids and another thing to establish habits that put the belief into practice. This is where gardening for kids comes in.
As outdoor activities go, gardening is hard to beat for promoting well-rounded development in youngsters. Whether the garden is in pots on an apartment balcony, a community patch or right out the back door, kids who engage with it are harvesting a whole lot more than food and flowers.
Read on for some data-driven reasons to get your kids out in the garden.
7 Practical perks of gardening with kids
1. It encourages them to eat healthier
It makes some intuitive sense. Half the fun of gardening is getting to eat what you grow. But the positive effect a sun-warmed strawberry has on your little ones will continue to ripple throughout their lives.
One study found that students involved in hands-on school gardening programs developed an increased snacking preference for fruits and vegetables. The research supporting this type of gardening program continues to rack up. Garden Organic reports many studies in their Growing Health Benefits Report that demonstrate how gardening can be instrumental in preventing obesity as well as other health problems.
When parents get involved in gardening with their kids, the results are even better! These studies suggest links between growing food and increased food preparation at home, as well as a 40 percent increase in consumption of fresh produce in adults. So grab a shovel with your child and watch the health of your whole family blossom.
2. It provides engaging, moderate exercise
If you’ve ever spent an afternoon in the garden, you’ve probably experienced time flying and sore muscles the next morning. Gardening is a surprisingly physical activity.
Garden tasks such as digging, raking and turning compost use a variety of muscles in the upper and lower body. One report cites the calorie expenditure for different gardening activities at around 250-500 calories per hour, depending on the intensity of the activity.
But more than mere exercise, gardening teaches children a pattern of healthy activity. The physical tasks of food growing can contribute to a broader understanding of the various ways of staying active, according to Garden Organic. Teachers also report that children and young people take greater responsibility for their own health.
3. It builds a sense confidence
Teachers and parents alike recognize how crucial confidence can be in a child’s ability to grow and learn. The process of tending a plant and seeing it bloom or produce food takes time and patience, but the payoff in satisfaction is equal to the investment.
Gardening helps make children feel more capable, according to Dr. Wendy Matthews, a consultant of Mindprint Learning. “It is wonderful for building a child’s sense of competence, as they engage in a real life activity that they might have previously seen as only for adults,” she explains.
Give any children the experience of dabbling a tiny seed into a hole, watering it, protecting it and watching it explode into life and growth—and they might just feel like they have magic powers!
4. It develops STEM & analytical abilities
“Gardening exercises important reasoning, initiation, planning and organization skills,” Matthews says. She advises parents or teachers to have their kids do a little gardening research before diving in. Children can read up on the various stages of growth, the tools they’ll need or different ways the plants are used after they grow
If your child wants to start gardening immediately, Matthews suggests asking questions to encourage your child to consider the consequences of their choices. For example, when the child is deciding on a spot to place the plant, ask, “Is there enough sunlight here?”
For even further development, Matthews suggests working on math and science skills by encouraging your children to observe their plants’ life cycles. “Children can measure their plants or make other observations and record their observations in a journal.” Weather cycles, measuring rainfall and monitoring the insect life around the plants can also foster a real scientific curiosity in your child.
5. It relieves stress
“The main benefit of gardening is learning to relax,” says counselor and maternal child nurse Orly Katz, LCPC. Katz emphasizes that gardening helps children make a habit of calming themselves. “Gardening allows kids to be alone, it allows them to breathe fresh air and be in peace by themselves.”
Research indicates that the calming effect gardening has on the brain extends even beyond the actual act of gardening. A 2011 study tested the stress-relieving effects of gardening in Amsterdam. Researchers found significant decreases in cortisol (a hormone produced by stress) in participants sent out to garden after a recovery period.
Another study indicated that individuals with access to a garden had significantly fewer stress occasions per year than those without access to a garden. And the more often people used their gardens, the fewer stress occasions they suffered per year.
Orly sees children learning to relax on their own when they garden. “By the time these kids are adults, they are comfortable initiating time alone, breathing fresh air and thinking,” she explains. “They don't need to learn to relax, they have an outlet they've been comfortable with since childhood.”
6. It improves focus & memory
Consistent involvement in gardening can contribute to improved alertness, cognitive abilities and social skills, according to Garden Organic. The act of gardening as a therapeutic treatment (known as horticulture therapy) has shown to be particularly effective in rehabilitating motor, speech and cognitive abilities after illness.
Children also perform better mentally when they have access to green space, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also relieved by outdoor green space, helping children focus both while they occupy the space as well as later in the day.
The improvements in memory and attention were even more significant when children engaged in an activity outdoors, such as—you guessed it—gardening!
7. It positively impacts mood & psychological wellbeing
Increased memory and focus are fabulous. But that is only part of the positive influence gardening has on the human brain. Garden Organic states that elements of gardening have the ability to trigger emotions in people. For example, flowers produce powerful positive emotions and have both immediate and long-term effects on emotional reactions, mood and social behavior.
Well beyond mood, gardening can also serve as a powerful therapeutic tool against depression and anxiety. Gardens and the act of gardening have been found to have a positive impact on peoples’ health and wellbeing.
Gardens, as well as the activity of gardening, have been shown to have a positive impact on peoples’ health and wellbeing, according to the Garden Organic report. It also states that those who are involved in gardening find life more satisfying and feel they have positive things happening in their lives.
Start planting roots
As spring advances, gardeners across the country are tumbling outside with seed packets and trowels in hand. Use the fresh excitement of spring as an excuse to do a little gardening with your children.
While gardening for kids is clearly an enriching use of time, there are so many other beneficial activities in the great outdoors that can provide similar benefits. For ideas and inspiration, check out our article: 10 Engaging Outdoor Learning Activities for Kids.