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.
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.