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Garden Guru: Gardening has many benefits for children

By John Porter
John Porter
Every year, people involved in encouraging young ones to garden gather through the American Horticultural Society at the National Children & Youth Garden Symposium.
John Porter Every year, people involved in encouraging young ones to garden gather through the American Horticultural Society at the National Children & Youth Garden Symposium.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have always encouraged children to garden because I think it is important that they know how to grow their own food and to know where their food comes from. I also work with organizations that think that teaching children to garden for the nutrition and physical activity benefits them directly -- kids are more likely to try fruits and vegetables that they grow.

There are many ways and places to get children involved in gardening, from involving them in home gardens to more formal education in a school or organization garden. Every year, people involved in encouraging young ones to garden gather through the American Horticultural Society at the National Children & Youth Garden Symposium.

I have attended for the last four years and come back refreshed and renewed and ready to get even more kids into the garden. Last week I attended the symposium in Denver, where I learned that there are many more benefits to getting children in the garden than I even imagined.

Through day-to-day contact with many people, it always amazes me to see how many generations of people do not know how to grow their own food or even where their food comes from. It was common in our parents' and grandparents' generations to be actively involved in growing the family's food. But attitudes changed, the country became more urban, and even in rural places farming became a lowly livelihood.

Attitudes are changing, but the knowledge is still lacking. What's worse, many children these days actually fear being outside, touching soil, or even touching plants. In programs that I do, it is amazing to hear some of the things that kids say when you take them out to garden. I've had some absolutely refuse to touch soil, some ask if touching weeds will hurt them, and many complain that they are not supposed to be outside because it will make them sick.

This newly ingrained fear of interacting with "nature" is what author David Sobel calls "ecophobia." I think it is high time that we reverse the tide of this fear and get more kids into the garden.

The benefits of getting children in the garden are far-reaching, and have been the focus of a long list of recent research projects. Here is a brief list of some of the benefits of getting kids out in the garden and out in nature.

  • Children who garden or play in nature have fewer allergies. As shown in the recent rapid increase in the number of cases seen by doctors, nearly half of all children have an allergy to something. The current working theory is called the hygiene hypothesis -- parents keep their homes so clean that children rarely interact with things that their body has to fight off, such as dust, dirt and pollen. Children's bodies don't develop appropriate natural defenses and therefore overreact when they come in contact with these everyday substances. The studies show that children with the lowest rates of allergies live on farms.
  • Gardening also reduces stress and anxiety, improves learning and reduces negative behaviors in children. One of the biggest things that I learned at this year's symposium is the mental benefits of gardening in children. Gardening can improve social skills and behavior in children, even those who have been identified with behavioral and social disorders. I was also interested to see that children who have a school garden have much higher achievement scores than those that don't.
  • When children interact with the natural world, they gain a greater appreciation of nature and our place in nature. Studies show that gardening and other nature activities increase behaviors in children such as recycling and conserving resources.
  • And of course, children who garden have a better understanding of their food and where it comes from. They are also likely to make better food choices and eat more fruits and vegetables daily than children who don't garden.

I challenge you to encourage children to garden, any way you can. I think it is important for our children's health and their future. If you have children or grandchildren, involve them in the home garden and encourage them to play outside in the yard or garden.

If you don't have a garden, potted plants and patio gardens can be a great way to get started. You could also look for community gardens where you and your children can garden or volunteer. If you are a teacher or principal, seriously think about gardening with your students, and if you are a parent, strongly encourage your school to start a garden if it doesn't already have one.

If your school or organization wants to start a school or youth garden, or if you would like to volunteer at a garden, I would be glad to help out. We have a network of school and youth gardens in the area and can provide information, assistance and resources to help you get started. Just send me an email or give me a call and we will have you gardening in no time.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVUgardenguru.


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