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The Health Benefits of Gardening for Kids

Digging in the soil is good for mind, body and palate

“Alice, what’s your favorite part of gardening?” Bethany Cowin asks her daughter.

“Planting seeds,” 6-year-old Alice nearly whispers.

“What’s Hilde’s favorite part?” Hilde is Alice’s little sister.

“Eating everything.”

The girls have been involved in their family’s garden since Alice was 2 1/2 years old and before Hilde could walk. Now gardening is part of the Grand Prairie family’s homeschool  curriculum.

In fact, improved academic outcomes associated with gardening have elevated the hobby to a serious part of many schools’ curricula.

REAL School Gardens started in Fort Worth to improve life for children in urban areas through school-based gardens. Now a nationwide program, the organization helps install outdoor learning gardens and trains teachers in how to use the space. Kids maintain the gardens and get hands-on lessons in biology, weather, even math and language arts.

“These aren’t just gardens,” says Mary Freeman, executive director for the Texas region. “They are outdoor classrooms. “They are just as important as the computer lab, library or other specialized classroom space.”

In a longitudinal study for REAL School Gardens, Southern Methodist University found increased pass rates on standardized tests and greater student engagement at schools with learning gardens. Other studies of school-based gardening programs report higher science scores, as well as better communication skills and increased self-esteem.

Then there is Hilde’s favorite part: the food.

Eat What you Sow

Chonnie Richey is the founder of Independence Gardens, a parent-led organization that’s installed edible gardens on three voacl campuses. The kids get their own plot to plant, tend and harvest. 

“In our first harvest there were two boys talking, and one said to the other that he had never seen carrots this big or this color orange. The other one answered, ‘I didn’t know carrots came from the ground,’” Richey recalls. “That was such an moment for all the adults around them: How can we expect kids to make healthy food choices if they don’t know where food comes from?”

Maintaining their own gardens can teach kids about fresh produce and inspire them to make healthier eating choices. A study published in the journal Hort Technology in 2016 reported that elementary students who were part of a three-year gardening program added a wider variety of fruits and veggies to their diets.

Cowin, the homeschooling mom, has a separate garden that her girls are responsible for, where they get to pick what they grow and learn how to care for it. “They are responsible for everything—weeding, picking, watering,” Cowin explains. And of course they’re involved with the eating too.

“Hilde loves eating the food we grow,” Cowin says. “During the summer, she loves going out and grabbing everything for salad, and now she loves eating salad.”

The kids who participate in Independence Gardens also take their produce from garden to table. “After we harvest
the food, we show the kids how to cook it,” Richey says. This is an opportunity to give the kids more new experiences with food. “We always introduce a new ingredient that they may not be familiar with, like quinoa and coconut milk: ingredients that make food nutritionally dense. … We do that because we want kids to ask about the ingredients.”

Bringing it Home

Fort Worth mom CJ Evans and her four kids started edible gardening with a small space in their backyard; now they plant tomatoes and herbs right in the front yard. “To me, it’s prettier than any flowers,” Evans says. People walk up and comment on it all the time.”

Their home gardening habits are reinforced at school, where Texas Christian University runs an edible garden. Gina Jarman Hill is the associate professor of nutritional sciences who leads students in the garden at North Hi Mount Elementary and at the University Christian Church Weekday School. “The first year we had an open house, the parents said things about how they would be at the grocery store and their preschooler would tell them, ‘Broccoli is a leafy green!’ and the parents would be so surprised,” Hill recalls.

That’s really where it all starts: Talk to your kids about food when and where you can. Introduce fresh ingredients, talk about where they come from and let your kids help make your food. “Maybe you buy basil at the grocery store to add to spaghetti. First, let your kids smell it and cut it. Let them add it so they can see the difference,” Richey suggests.

“You’re building steps to engage them in the food,” she adds. “If you start engaging kids in these activities, they can take responsibility for that. And when kids make it, they are more likely to eat it.”