Category Archives: Mental and Physical Health

Supporting Childhood Development Through Gardening

From What’s In My Garden? written by Cheryl Christian, illustrated by Annie Beth Ericsson

Play isn’t just fun; it is fundamental for supporting a child’s learning, growth, and development. In particular, outdoor play helps improve sensory skills and encourages physical activity. Outdoor play doesn’t stop at the playground; it can also take place in a garden. Gardening with your child provides bonding time and helps them develop positive habits that enhance lifelong health. This activity can be accessible to children who live in urban and rural areas.


Gardening Supports Health

Sunlight, fresh air, and digging in the dirt benefit your child’s health in multiple ways. Gardening supports sensory development by engaging every sense—the sights and scents of flowers, tastes of veggies, and textures of leaves. Gardening has also been shown to improve mental health by helping reduce stress and depression. Exposure to healthy microbes in the dirt can strengthen your child’s microbiome—an important part of their immune system. Playing outside can even help children sleep better at night.


Tending a garden also supports essential motor skills. Fine motor skills are needed for tasks like using a pencil or tying shoelaces. Using gardening tools, grasping tiny seeds, and pulling weeds help your child develop these skills. Carrying a watering can and walking in soft soil can boost gross motor skills like balance and coordination. Physical exercise like this is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and preventing illness.


A garden can help your child enjoy a healthy diet. It can be a challenge to convince picky eaters to try new foods or get proper daily servings of vegetables. Children are more likely to try new vegetables and fruits if they help to grow them. Multiple studies found that gardening increased vegetable consumption in children far more effectively than nutrition education programs.


Gardening can also be part of a healthy lifestyle for children with physical disabilities. There are many simple ways to make gardens accessible. One of the easiest is to use raised containers in order for the soil level to be within reach. Window boxes, hanging baskets, or vertical gardens can accomplish this, as well as tall plants like tomatoes or pea vines on a trellis. Wide walkways of compacted soil or gravel can offer better traction for scooter or wheelchair users.


Gardening Builds Cognitive Skills

Tending plants can spark your child’s curiosity for science. Starting a plant from seed offers a hands-on opportunity to see the life cycle of plants. Once the seed develops, grade schoolers can learn the basic parts of a plant—flower, leaf, fruit, stem, root—and their functions. Middle and high schoolers might find interest in identifying more detailed parts of a flower—anther, filament, stigma, etc.


Planning for a garden can also help develop your child’s vocabulary as they learn the names of plants and vegetables and read requirements on seed packages for light, water, and soil. Grade school children can create plant labels by writing plant names on popsicle sticks or stones. If you are creating a larger vegetable garden, older children can help you make a garden map to plan when to sow seeds and how to maximize available space.


Your child’s critical thinking will be challenged by tending a garden, whether it is through figuring out how to move a big rock or quickly pulling weeds. You and your child can solve problems together by discussing how you will manage bad weather, plant diseases, or garden pests.

From A Garden for Groundhog by Lorna Balian


Get Your Garden Started

Gardening doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, or take up a lot of space; but it does require a little planning. First, consider the needs of your family and the age of your child(ren). With toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary-aged children, avoid plants that may be dangerous if touched or ingested. Young children may delight in the reward of quick-sprouting seeds like peas, lettuce, and beans. Children in middle and high school may enjoy seeing a flower bloom or a vegetable ripen after weeks of anticipation.


If you have a big yard, in-ground garden beds are a great option, but smaller spaces like patios can host beautiful container gardens. Urban families with limited outdoor space may be able to use hanging baskets, window boxes, rooftop space, or even plant an herb garden on a windowsill. Many cities offer community garden plots where anyone can volunteer. If you aren’t sure what to plant or how to care for plants, most regions in the US have an extension office with gardening experts who can give you advice.


Whether your garden fills an acre or a couple pots on your front steps, it will provide your child countless opportunities to grow and develop as you nurture nature together.

How to Teach Children Body Autonomy and Consent


What is body autonomy?

Body autonomy (sometimes called bodily autonomy) is defined by the United Nations as the power and agency a person has over their body and future, without violence or coercion. In other words, all people—including children—have a right to live free from physical acts, such as touch, to which they do not consent.


Why do body autonomy and consent matter?

Body autonomy and consent are vital to every human being. Learning about these concepts early in life helps to support a child’s social and emotional skills like sensitivity toward others and self-confidence. Body autonomy and consent also play a part in aiding children’s mental and physical health.


Some children love getting hugs and snuggles! Others, including those with touch sensitivities or sensory processing differences, may find these forms of physical affection uncomfortable or stressful. Allowing children to express when they are feeling discomfort or hurt and encouraging them to consider how others feel helps them to develop self-awareness and empathy.


Many professionals, including pediatricians, believe that teaching children about body autonomy and consent is also an important tool to help prevent child sexual abuse. This abuse can have long-term physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences on children. Child sexual abuse is a significant problem: about one in four girls and one in thirteen boys experience sexual abuse at some point before the age of eighteen.


For a variety of reasons, many children who experience abuse wait to report or never report it. Understanding body autonomy and consent at a young age can empower a child to speak up and say “no” if abuse occurs. It can also equip children to disclose abuse if it happens.


This is a heavy topic, and it can be hard for caregivers to know how and when to talk with their children about these issues. The short answer? Start simple and start young!


Talking to children about autonomy and consent

Caregivers can begin talking with children about autonomy and consent as early as preschool. Conversations about these subjects should change and expand as a child grows. Here are some practical tips to initiate discussions with children and keep them ongoing.


Use the right terms at the right age

While preteens can begin to comprehend abstract concepts like “consent” or “autonomy,” preschoolers can grasp simpler words related to consent like “body,” “space,” and “touch.” Use phrases like “this is my body and my space” to illustrate meaning. Preschool is also a great time to teach children the correct anatomic names for body parts, including private parts. This approach helps children understand that these parts of their body are important and not shameful. Youngsters will also be able to use the right terms if they need to disclose abuse.


Talk with preschoolers and kindergarteners about who is allowed to see or touch their body and for what reasons. “OK touches” might include a parent helping them use the bathroom, a teacher helping tie their shoe, a friend giving them a hug, or a doctor giving them a checkup with a parent present. “Not OK touches” might include someone hugging or touching them without their permission or someone touching or asking to see their private parts. These conversations can develop as children age; include the subject of consent in discussions about sex and sexual harassment with your preteen and teenager.


Ask your child to name at least five family members and adult friends outside the family who they trust and see often. This might include a teacher, coach, or doctor. This group of adults is their “safety network.” Let your child know that if they ever feel uncomfortable, scared, hurt, or confused after an encounter with someone, they should talk with an adult in their safety network.



From Please Don’t Give Me a Hug!

Practice giving and receiving consent

Some caregivers might encourage—even force—their children to “give grandpa a hug” or “give auntie a kiss.” Allow your child to decide whether or not they want to have this contact. Support the idea that if a child says “no,” the behavior should stop and not be forced.


Offering a choice empowers your child to have control over their own body and teaches them that it is okay to say no, even to adults. Give them other ways to show affection—a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump, for instance.


Remind your child to ask permission before touching another child. Share with them that not everyone likes to be touched, and that’s okay! Other people have autonomy over their own bodies too.


Starting the conversation

Physician Martha Perry suggests using media such as movies or news stories to spark conversations with your child about consent. Having conversations about consent and body autonomy will play a vital role your child’s health and wellbeing throughout their life.


Here are some resources to help you get started:

For preschool children

Our new board book Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! is a story about how some children dislike physical contact. This book can help you talk with your toddler or preschooler about how friendliness, love, and affection can be shown in many ways!


For grade-school children

Boss of My Body from the Mother Company is a music video that introduces the idea of body autonomy by encouraging children to be the “boss” of their own body.


For preteens and teens

The ASK. LISTEN. RESPECT. video and discussion guide can help you speak to your teenagers about healthy relationships, including setting—and respecting—boundaries.