By Siobhan Niklasson
Every generation worries about its children. These days, it seems, we worry especially about our children's health, nutrition and physical activity (or lack thereof), as well as their deficit of empathy, which can lead to bullying.
How can we help our plugged-in kids be more sensitive to nature, good food, and the lives of others? I'd like to suggest that one great way is to introduce them to gardening.
Kids and gardens are a natural combination. First, there's the dirt factor. As a parent of two toddlers, I can tell you with a certain amount of laundry-related chagrin that there is hardly anything more satisfying to a child than being set loose in the dirt with a shovel. Add water, and the delight is total. This may not be an adult's idea of nature-worship, but for kids, gardens are the perfect way to enjoy nature.
Then, of course, gardens engage all the senses wonderfully. The explosion of colors in a flowerbed, the aromas of wet earth and tomatoes still warm on the vine, the buzzing of bees busily sipping nectar, the crumble of damp soil or the cool slide of a worm between your fingers, and of course the sweet crush of a fresh raspberry on your tongue: how could these impressions of nature not enchant a child?
And that leads to the healthy food factor. Kelly Larson, a former elementary school teacher as well as an avid gardener, is bringing PEEC's children's garden back to life again this summer. "By starting with a seed, the kids gain hands-on experience of what it takes to grow into a plant," she says. "They'll also learn the basic anatomy of plants, as well as organic gardening methods, and perhaps discover a few new favorite vegetables." The child who might ordinarily balk at broccoli will try anything if he grew it himself.
After the kids make their observations of how the garden changes from week to week and have fun with art projects, they'll prepare their own harvest feast to enjoy the fruits of their labor. So the first stealth maneuver is growing the food and the second is the feasting.
But how can gardening lead a child down the path toward empathy? When I stopped by to watch the kids this week, I was struck by how concerned the children were for the success of their tiny seeds. Nurturing a plant from seed to harvest in our harsh New Mexico climate gives children a deep appreciation for the care required to help another life flourish.
The skills a child learns by tending her first garden will serve her throughout her life. From the first seed a preschooler plants in a little pot to the elaborate plans of a master gardener, gardening is always about experimentation. The simple formula of seed plus sun, water and nutrients has so many variations that the opportunities for learning are limitless.
So children are having fun in the muck, grasping some basic biological principles, becoming acquainted with some frightening vegetables, and learning the fundamentals of caring for the earth and its creatures--all this through exploring the mysteries and miracles of gardens.
Siobhan Niklasson is a board member and educator at PEEC (Pajarito Environmental Education Center).
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