By Layla Khoury-Hanold

With the sun shining, birds chirping and azaleas blooming, spring is an ideal time to get outside and garden, especially with your kids. Besides being a fun hands-on project and a way to spend time outdoors as a family, there are plenty of learning opportunities and takeaways for children of all ages. To find out more about the benefits of gardening with kids, we turned to Georgia Organics, a non-profit who believes that a sustainable local food system is critical to the future of Georgia’s health, environment and economy.

One of the key initiatives of Georgia Organics is their Farm to School program, where they work with schools and local farms to serve healthy meals in cafeterias, improve students’ health and provide food and gardening education. “We find that kids are pretty excited to garden, especially in the school setting,” says James Carr, Georgia Organics’ Communications Coordinator. “Kids enjoy being outside because there are so many interesting things. They can get dirty and there is a lot of applicable knowledge.”

The foundation behind Georgia Organic’s curriculum shows that gardening can serve as a launch pad for any subject so you can easily take lessons from the classroom to your backyard. For example, counting seeds and measuring the distance between rows and plants is a great way to reinforce math skills. Learning about different plants and how and why they grow is a lesson in biology. Studying recipes and their traditions teaches kids about social context, history and trade.

Food is also a powerful catalyst for promoting healthy eating, getting kids in the kitchen and teaching them about local food systems. Carr says that kids tend to eat what they grow and prepare, a phenomenon he describes as “seed-to-stomach.” Every year they hold a Farm to School Summit and build a campaign around a vegetable, last year it was spinach. After growing it at school, Carr heard countless stories about kids asking their parents for spinach and making recipes with it at home. “There’s something so fulfilling about seeing something from start to finish,” Carr notes.  The spinach exists because they loved it and took care of it and it does the same by nourishing them. It is a beautiful cycle.”

Digging even deeper, you will find that kids can learn valuable life lessons. “You learn about life and death, patience and opportunity versus costs,” Carr explains.  “And through gardening, core values like responsibility and hard work are not simply taught, they become ingrained.” Carr cites the book Children of the Land: Adversity and Success in Rural America in which the authors studied and collected data on children who grew up in farm families in Iowa. The findings show that with ties to the land, these children developed strong intergenerational ties, were more engaged in their community, school and church, and enjoyed a close-knit relationship with their parents. “It correlates to a lot of things societally that might be missing right now,” Carr adds.

As with any project, it is important to have a plan in place and to manage expectations, your kids’ expectations as well as your own. As we know, growing and nurturing another living thing takes time  but with these tips and a sprinkling of patience (which your kids will soon learn in spades), you will be well on your way to a fun and rewarding gardening experience.

Safety First

It is always important to make sure that the environment is safe, no matter what the activity. Here are a few things to consider before getting started:

• Ensure that activities are age-appropriate

• Be careful with gardening tools

• Minimize exposure to potential allergens

• Avoid using pesticide

• Watch out for insects like mosquitos, fire ants and bees

• Stay hydrated and do not overdo sun exposure

• Keep a first-aid kit ready

Start Small

If you are just getting started, look no further than your windowsill. Try your hand at growing an herb garden or veggies like lettuce and radishes. It is also a great option if you do not have the outdoor space or if the weather prevents you from getting outside. You can also start with fundamentals like teaching kids how plants drink. Fill a glass with water, add a few drops of food coloring and a piece of celery or a white carnation. After a day, the leaves or blossom should have changed color. You can also incorporate gardening projects into arts and crafts, like making a watering can, scoop, plant labels or tool tote from a milk jug. Check out the book Green Thumbs for more details and project inspiration.

Get Dirty

For any venture to be successful, you need to start with a good foundation. In this case, that means ensuring that you have good soil. “A great entry level project is to start learning about compost and how it breaks down and the balance of nutrients that it needs,” Carr shares. It is also a great way to teach kids to control food waste and how putting it back into the environment benefits the Earth. It is a lengthier project because composting typically takes two to three months to come to fruition but it will set you up for gardening success.

There’s an App for That

Apps can be a useful tool for getting kids excited about gardening and can be a great learning supplement. Roo’s Fabulous Edible Garden teaches children about the entire plant life cycle as well as the seed-to-table concept so kids learn recipes for making their own healthy snacks. In Gro Garden, kids learn about sustainable gardening and farming, like how food scraps produce nutrient-rich soil, how to harvest vegetables and how vegetables feed other animals. You can also bring social media into the fold as it is appropriate. For example, post updates to Facebook so friends and family can provide encouragement or advice, set up an Instagram account to track daily progress or start a blog to chronicle the project and learnings.

Go with the Pros

If you are not sure where to start, get help from experts. Look for community gardening projects at local parks or for opportunities and workshops through Augusta Locally Grown. Check out Georgia Organics’ online resources page for gardening advice, cooking inspiration and Farm to School videos at https://georgiaorganics.org/resources. And save the date for Georgia Organics’ annual Farm to School Summit to be held October 5 and 6 at Helms College in Augusta. Educators, farmers, parents, students and activists are welcome to participate in two days of education sessions, in-depth workshops and field trips.

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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