Here’s How to Grow Happy Children in the Garden

Most kids know that apples come from trees, but even kids as old as eight will often answer “The grocery store” when asked where cucumbers, melons, or berries come from. kidü spoke with Lauren Maples, who is the Executive Director for PEAS (Partners for Education Agriculture and Sustainability) and a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.


It’s really important to have kids see all the different ways our food is grown, so they can make healthy choices about what they eat. They know that both their Cheetos and their apple came from 7/11, but how do they know which one is healthy, if they don’t understand the differences between their snacks that come from a garden and those that comes from a factory.

She described to kidü all the important reasons to get the littlest children digging in the soil with their bare hands and dropping seeds into holes. These reasons include helping children connect to the planet as a whole, and fostering an understanding of the interconnectedness of all living creatures and systems on earth. So while there’s clearly a big picture benefit for humanity, Maples also pointed to very compelling reasons for each and every individual child to spend more time outside:

When they’re young, we’re setting their patterns for their lifetime. If they don’t get outside when they’re toddlers and preschoolers, they won’t value it later. There’s all kind of research that shows how connectedness with nature is part of having a stable mind. When there’s disconnect, we’re seeing rise in depression and disorders like ADHD and anxiety.

The Children & Nature Network provides a searchable database of research into the impact of greenery on young people. As it turns out, mental health is just one of the benefits of getting kids more closely aligned with our planet. Other improvements researchers found in children who increased their outdoor time include improved social skills, executive function, and self-esteem.

As Executive Director of PEAS, Maples has worked with hundreds of young children in the garden, including one little girl named Amalia. Maples’ brown eyes sparkle whenever she talks about the transformation of the kids:

I’ll never forget Amelia. She was an extremely picky eater, only consuming chicken and pasta, chicken and pasta. But as Amelia worked in the garden for several years, she grew alongside the vegetables she tended: Over time, Amelia began to pick some cilantro or mint to chomp on as she inspected what was ready for harvest. Eventually, she learned to love even kale and beets.

Not only does Maples manage a gorgeous community garden, but she develops educational programs to help kids get the maximum benefits from the experience. Here are three amazing ways to grow happy children in the garden:

  • Bug Catch: Discuss with children which bugs help the garden and which bugs hurt it. Then give your child a cup to go catch some squirmy creatures. You may want to caution them to avoid bees or stick close by to help the littlest ones.
  • Garden Hunt: Sometimes going into the garden can be even more fascinating when you focus your wee one’s attention just a bit. This fun game does the trick. For toddlers, draw 5 items on a piece of paper such as flower, stem, dirt, bug, watering can, and grass. Then hunt for the items, providing encouragement and assistance without giving away the answers. For older children, you might step up the challenge by writing 5 directions instead of drawing pictures: “This is the part of a flower that is pollinated by a bee” or “Find the part of a plant that drinks water from the soil.” For a twist, you can ask children to find plants that people eat the tops of  (broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce). And then ask them to find plants we eat the bottoms of (broccoli, carrots, and turnips).
  • Dirt Dig: Many kids could play in the mud all day, so why not let them? (True, we don’t need to do your laundry.) But here’s a fun activity that puts a little learning into the mix. Provide your child with two cups. Together, take soil samples from different places, such as a house plant and the backyard. Then encourage your child to examine the dirt in each cup, separating out the rocks, twigs, and bugs. Which one has more dirt and organic matter? Which is more moist? Why are there differences between these different dirt samples?

Next time you find yourself with ten extra minutes, why not mosey into the backyard with your kiddo, dig in the dirt, drop in a seed and water. Then sit back and observe the wonder of it all.


Shana Burg