This week is National Allotment Week, so what better time to get the kids outside and get planting? Lianne Kolirin dons her gardening gloves and finds out why it’s an ideal learning tool for children
Gardening was once regarded as the preserve of the older generation but now it’s booming, particularly with families. And it can help children acquire essential skills to fulfil their potential in other areas of life, according to recent research by the Royal Horticultural Society. Specifically, it found that gardening in schools helps kids become more adaptable learners, learn vital job skills, embrace a healthier lifestyle and work with people from all backgrounds.
Chris Collins, Blue Peter gardener and co-author of Grow Your Own For Kids, believes the garden is the ultimate outdoor classroom. ‘I like to get kids involved in the whole outdoor experience,’ he says. ‘There’s so much educational stuff involved: biology, chemistry, maths and more. You can also use art by doing a bit of design work. Kids enjoy the fresh air and the physical side, and gardening can also be a good teamwork exercise.’
So how do you introduce children to gardening? Forget the formalities and just dig in, says Collins, who has launched a children’s gardening range. ‘When kids get out and get their hands in the soil it’s all very natural. In nine years of gardening with kids I’ve never had one who didn’t want to do it.’
Nobody is born with green fingers, so lack of experience is no excuse. ‘Wisdom is born from error,’ says Collins. The key is to start with fast-growing vegetables such as rocket and potatoes. ‘Give children a small project that will get them excited. Think of the maddest thing you can grow rocket in, like an old welly. Or I will get them to grow rocket or potatoes in a hessian sack.’
Both are practically failsafe, he says. ‘They work and there’s no coming back through that door once you’re on the other side,’ he says. ‘In many ways gardening gets into your soul.’
You don’t need a huge garden either. In fact, a garden isn’t a prerequisite at all, as the boom in allotment gardening proves. In 1993 most UK allotment holders were male. Twenty years on, the membership of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG) is split evenly between the sexes. NSALG spokeswoman Georgie Willock attributes this in part to the rise of the green-fingered mum.
‘Families are definitely getting involved,’ she says. ‘We’ve also realised that gardening becomes more popular during a recession,’ she says. The reason, however, is less about money and more to do with quality family time. ‘Parents want something they can teach children about the real value of life, and allotment gardening is part of that ideal. Being removed from the stresses of daily life, you can concentrate on your family while also learning new skills and appreciating where you live. Children see that you can get something back by putting the effort in.’
There are countless reasons to get gardening with your kids – it’s healthy, educational and cheap. What’s more, it’s great for encouraging fussy eaters to eat their greens. ‘Kids love growing their own food,’ says Gill Anderton, editor of Gardening With Children. ‘They will try most foods when they have just picked them.’
Be sure, however, to manage your child’s expectations so they don’t assume a bumper crop will spring up overnight. ‘A lot of it is trial and error. I’ve been gardening all my life and I don’t get things right first time,’ says Anderton, whose website has plenty of ideas about what to grow each season, such as giant sunflowers in spring.
‘If you’re really going back to basics, start by growing in containers or a hanging basket,’ she says. ‘You could easily grow herbs or salad crops on your windowsill. All you need is some sunlight in a warm sheltered position and water.’
Attention spans may be relatively short, so don’t expect kids to spend hours weeding and pruning. Instead, focus on digging, planting and picking.
If you have a garden, give your child a dedicated area. For inspiration, visit parks and public gardens. As for kit, old clothes, wellies and a good pair of gardening gloves are in order. You can also purchase children’s gardening tools, which are easy to handle. But be warned! ‘If children are using tools they should obviously be supervised, as even a fork, if not used correctly, could be a danger,’ says Anderton. Supervision is critical when children are young because other dangers lurk in the garden, too – keep them away from non-edible berries and poisonous plants such as foxgloves.
Once you’ve grasped the basics, consider more ambitious projects or an allotment. Acquiring one is notoriously difficult, but you can contact your council to be put on their waiting list if you’re interested.
Remember, though, wherever you do it, gardening requires a regular time commitment.
‘Take it step by step and don’t overdo it,’ says Willock. ‘A lot of people are really enthusiastic and then burn out because gardening is hard work and things don’t happen quickly.’
Top tips for gardening with kids
• Gardening is largely a case of trial and error, so have the confidence to have a go.
• Manage your child’s expectations. Explain that gardening requires plenty of patience and that success rates vary.
• Short regular bursts are better than one day outside every two weeks.
• Pick crops with large seeds that are easy to handle. And go for fast-growing crops such as strawberries, tomatoes, beans, courgettes and radishes.
• If you want to try growing flowers, go for sunflowers as they are big, bright and easy to grow.