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Gardening for Kids

The Many Educational and Therapeutic Benefits

Kimberton Waldorf School

Gardening reduces stress, awakens all the senses and promotes a feeling of well-being, peace and renewal, according to studies cited by Celia Martin, teacher at Kimberton Waldorf School in Phoenixville, PA.

Better nutrition

Enticing children to eat broader, healthier diets is another of the countless therapeutic benefits of gardening.

“I never liked snap peas before we grew them,” said Celeste Flahaven, a senior at Kimberton. “But the plants did so well and were so pretty. I love them!”

Emotional therapy

“Humans have an innate connection to plants and nature,” explains Nancy Minich, nationally renowned landscape architect, registered horticultural therapist, consultant and adjunct professor.

When people engage their senses in the landscape, neurons in the brain fire, releasing positive hormones, Minich says. Gardening is tactile, stimulating and gets people moving. “It’s great for depression,” she notes.

At-risk youth convicted of petty crimes sometimes participate in Minich’s streambank restoration projects as part of their court-ordered community service. Their counselors have reported to Minich that the youth return from gardening with a sense of accomplishment and calm.

As Kimberton’s Martin points out, “Students who aren’t necessarily gifted academically thrive in the garden. There they can be successful, make a difference.”

Sights, sounds & smells

A different sort of rehabilitation happens in the Sea Garden of Seashore House at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Visiting the colorful rooftop garden, patients facing a long rehab can identify with seeds that take time to germinate, grow and progress. Music therapist Sarah White, currently studying to be a registered horticultural therapist, described a session with three young patients who potted tiny tree seedlings last Earth Day. The children composed a song to help them learn the sequencing necessary for planting.

The aroma and color provided by lavender, mint and herbs make the CHOP gar- den a compelling destination for families who can’t otherwise be outside together. In addition, occupational therapists help patients harvest tomatoes and basil to make salsa and pesto.

Learn & grow

Cheltenham High School in Montgomery County, PA, has an organic farm club, hosted in a greenhouse space. Science teacher Ana Salazar-DiGiulio, facilitator of the Environmental Club of which it’s a part, describes “the dynamic interaction” when kids plant, harvest and save seeds for the next season. It’s very different from textbook learning, she says. As stu- dents grow food, she observes the lights go on: “‘Oh, that’s the point of the flower and fertilization!’ they realize. When they make the connections, it’s awesome.”

DiGiulio says the students take tremendous pride in maintaining the plants and cleaning the greenhouse. They research and care for some of the teachers’ plants, including aloe, herbs and a kumquat tree.

To manage long weekends and holidays, the students created self-watering containers from recycled water bottles.

To make the most of such holistic learning for students, a sustained program is better than a quick “one and done” exposure, urges Karen Shaffran, a Cheltenham educator on special assignment this year.

Make connections

“Gardening brings people together,” notes Alexis Bacon, a Kimberton Waldorf alumna who will graduate from Temple University with a degree in horticulture this spring. She emphasizes how it “develops the nurturing side of the self.”

She cites the disconnect many young people today have from their food sources. For example, in two different situations, students expressed shock that potatoes grow from plants.

More than ever in our digital world, gardening’s social, physical and emotion- al benefits are being noted, and they echo the words of Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of this country’s founders: “Digging in the soil has a curative effect.”

Ann L. Rappoport is a contributing writer to MetroKids. 

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