How gar­den­ing helps build hap­pier kids

Get­ting up close and per­sonal with dirt, be­ing out­side re­plen­ishes young minds

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - SHAN­NON BRESCHER SHEA

WHEN OUR CHERRY toma­toes blush red each sum­mer, my son ea­gerly plucks them from the vine and pops them in his mouth. He points at ran­dom plants and proudly de­clares, “That one’s mine!” And oc­ca­sion­ally, he yells in panic as the hose from the rain bar­rel over­flows his tiny wa­ter­ing can.

Ad­mit­tedly, gar­den­ing with kids isn’t al­ways idyl­lic.

But even when it’s chaotic, it can be tremen­dously ben­e­fi­cial. Sci­en­tific re­search sug­gests that get­ting up close and per­sonal with dirt can im­prove chil­dren’s men­tal and phys­i­cal health. Gar­den­ing can help kids burn off ex­tra en­ergy and con­trol their im­pulses, de­velop strong im­mune sys­tems, and will­ingly con­sume more healthy fruits and veg­eta­bles. What’s not to like?

And de­spite the gloomy news from stud­ies show­ing that tweens and teens spend an av­er­age of six to nine hours a day on screens, more fam­i­lies with kids are gar­den­ing now than 10 years ago. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Gar­den­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, gar­den­ing in house­holds with chil­dren in­creased by 25 per cent from 2008 to 2013, as fam­i­lies have awak­ened to the hid­den ben­e­fits of the an­cient pas­time.

Even when my 4-year-old is bounc­ing off the walls, he vis­i­bly re­laxes when we head out­doors, find­ing the self-aware­ness to avoid step­ping on del­i­cate plants. Sim­i­larly, my 1-year-old stops whin­ing and fo­cuses on draw­ing in the dirt.

My kids aren’t alone. The nat­u­ral stim­u­la­tion of be­ing out­side seems to re­plen­ish ex­hausted minds by prac­tic­ing self-dis­ci­pline, re-en­er­giz­ing the part of the brain that con­trols con­cen­tra­tion, checks urges and de­lays grat­i­fi­ca­tion.

A study of 169 girls and boys in a pub­lic hous­ing de­vel­op­ment in Chicago found that girls who had greener views from their apart­ments did bet­ter on tests that mea­sured self-dis­ci­pline. Of the range in test scores, one-fifth of the vari­a­tion could be ex­plained by the dif­fer­ences in the “green­ness” of the kids’ sur­round­ings.

These ben­e­fits may be even greater for chil­dren with at­ten­tion-deficit disor­der. A sur­vey of 96 fam­i­lies in the Mid­west asked par­ents which ac­tiv­i­ties ap­peared to de­crease their child’s symp­toms and which seemed to in­crease them. Par­ents con­sis­tently chose “green” ac­tiv­i­ties as hav­ing a pos­i­tive ef­fect on their child’s symp­toms.

“Most of us have a sig­nif­i­cant na­ture deficit and would be health­ier if we could ad­dress that deficit by spend­ing more time in an out­door set­ting,” says Robert Zarr, founder of Park Rx Amer­ica and a pe­di­a­tri­cian in Wash­ing­ton. Park Rx Amer­ica en­cour­ages doc­tors and other health providers to “pre­scribe” time in na­ture.

And that time in na­ture may even al­low us to use our senses in new ways, ex­perts say.

“It’s about plant­ing the plant and watch­ing it grow, it’s also about other things,” says Richard Louv, au­thor of “Last Child in the Woods” and co-founder of the Chil­dren & Na­ture Net­work. “It’s about turn­ing over rocks, get­ting your hands muddy and your feet wet. It’s about us­ing more of your senses. It’s about be­ing in the world.”

Gar­den­ing com­bines the ben­e­fits of be­ing out­side with the op­por­tu­nity to tackle a project. My 4-year-old proudly wa­ters the blue­berry bushes and weeds around the gar­den fence. He’s build­ing his abil­ity to fo­cus as well as his ex­ec­u­tive func­tion, or ca­pac­ity to man­age in­for­ma­tion and re­act to sit­u­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, he quickly learned that his wa­ter­ing can over­flows if he doesn’t pay at­ten­tion. And older chil­dren can take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own green space.

“If the kid has a soli­tary ex­pe­ri­ence cre­at­ing his or her own gar­den, there’s a spe­cial magic to that,” Louv says.

MY 1-YEAR-OLD isn’t old enough to do any­thing in the gar­den, but he joins us out there any­way. He spends most of his time play­ing in — and at­tempt­ing to eat — the dirt. When I catch him, he looks up with a vaguely guilty ex­pres­sion and dirty smudges around his lips. It sounds gross, but his soil in­ges­tion may ac­tu­ally be a good thing.

Re­search sug­gests that it’s es­sen­tial for young chil­dren to de­velop a healthy “mi­cro­biome,” or per­sonal mi­crobe ecosys­tem. Al­though there are some mi­crobes — bac­te­ria, fungi and viruses — that make us sick, many more are es­sen­tial to our health.

“The im­mune sys­tem is there to act like a gar­dener or a na­tional park war­den,” says Jack Gil­bert, a mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Chicago and coau­thor of the new book “Dirt Is Good.” “It’s there to pro­mote the abun­dance and growth of good bac­te­ria and act as a bar­rier to the gen­er­a­tion of bad bac­te­ria.”

NOT BE­ING EX­POSED to enough mi­crobes as a child can re­sult in an un­der­de­vel­oped im­mune sys­tem, which can cause a host of prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to Gil­bert, in­clud­ing auto-im­mune dis­eases, in­flam­ma­tory bowel disorders and al­ler­gies.

Be­ing around dirt, in the gar­den or oth­er­wise, can help kids de­velop that healthy mi­cro­biome that helps pre­vent these is­sues.

“Pick­ing up soil and smudg­ing it into their face, there’s noth­ing wrong with that,” Gil­bert says. “Ex­po­sure to the out­side en­vi­ron­ment … can be ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial in help­ing your child to grow a func­tional im­mune sys­tem and their brain and their body in the best way pos­si­ble.”

AC­TIVE IN­VOLVE­MENT in a gar­den can also make kids more will­ing con­sumers of veg­eta­bles, in­clud­ing un­fa­mil­iar va­ri­eties. My older son is def­i­nitely a more ad­ven­tur­ous eater thanks to the gar­den. (My 1-year-old, mean­while, doesn’t know the dif­fer­ence yet.) Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the plant­ing, wa­ter­ing and es­pe­cially har­vest­ing of veg­eta­bles cre­ates a con­nec­tion that you just can’t get from a trip to the su­per­mar­ket.

This seems to be a pretty com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence. An anal­y­sis that looked at 14 stud­ies of school, com­mu­nity and af­ter-school gar­den pro­grams found that in 10 of them, chil­dren ate more fruits and veg­eta­bles af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram.

Mateja R. Savoie-Roskos, the lead au­thor of that anal­y­sis and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of nu­tri­tion, di­etet­ics and food sci­ence at Utah State Univer­sity, en­cour­ages par­ents to in­volve their kids through­out the sea­son, from plant­ing seeds and wa­ter­ing through har­vest­ing.

“We want our kids to know how food grows and how we even get the food that we have,” Savoie-Roskos says.

OUR FAM­ILY IS LUCKY to have a ded­i­cated out­door space for plants. But even par­ents that don’t have a back­yard have op­tions.

Park Rx Amer­ica’s data­base of green space, which in­cludes thou­sands of lo­ca­tions across the coun­try, has a fil­ter that al­lows users to find parks with com­mu­nity gar­dens. There are also many in­de­pen­dently run com­mu­nity gar­dens, and school gar­dens are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. As of 2013, more than 30 per cent of schools in the United States had gar­dens, an in­crease of about 12 per cent from 2006, ac­cord­ing to a study in the Jour­nal of School Health. Chil­dren can even bring a lit­tle bit of na­ture to their deck or fire es­cape with a con­tainer gar­den.

Whether in your own lit­tle plot or as part of a larger space, gar­den­ing can pro­vide chil­dren with a va­ri­ety of ben­e­fits few other ac­tiv­i­ties can.

Or as Louv says, “A gar­den can be a door­way into a larger uni­verse.”

Be­ing around dirt, in the gar­den or oth­er­wise, can help kids de­velop a healthy mi­cro­biome that helps pre­vent some health is­sues.

“Dirt is Good” by Jack Gil­bert and Rob Knight

“Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv

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