Dirt, Sun, Water & Seeds

A basic formula to bring your family closer together.

While chauffeuring your children to piano, soccer or dance, do you ever wonder why the fun learning part of their life has to be separate from yours? Or do you find yourself filling the school holidays with activities and then realize you haven’t left space just to make your own fun? Luckily, there’s a simple antidote to these feelings of disconnect: Gardening with your kids. 

This doesn’t mean you have to grow all your family’s food or become an expert in soil PH levels to get started. “All you need is dirt, sun, water and seeds,” says Dr. Robert Bowden, director of Orlando’s Harry P. Leu Gardens, to create lasting family memories, give kids a sense of purpose, and initiate healthier lifelong habits. 

Kelly Ladd-Sanchez, mom of 8-year-old Kai, shares how her family bonded last summer over bonsai trees. “We each got one and we all sat in the backyard clipping and trying to make our bonsais beautiful. We were helping each other, talking, sharing what was working, what wasn’t. We were all learning together.” 

Brad Jones, local firefighter and volunteer gardener of Orlando Junior Academy’s (OJA) garden-based curriculum, sees first-hand the value of parents and kids learning to garden together. “Being vulnerable in front of your kids is valuable. It levels the playing field.”

Saturday at the Orlando Junior Academy’s community garden. ROBERTO GONZALEZ

It also gives children a sense of accomplishment, which encourages them to try healthy foods they might not otherwise. “I want kids to know where food comes from,” says Chef Kevin Fonzo, owner of K Restaurant & Wine Bar in College Park. Along with local raw food chef Sarah Cahill, he spearheads OJA’s Nutrition Science Lab, taught to fifth-through eighth-grade students for half of each school year.

“Say kids love pickles,” explains Fonzo. “Yet, they have no idea that pickles are made from cucumbers, which started as seeds. So they begin to learn the concept of seed to table.” The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Chef Fonzo recalls a story about a group of youngsters who harvested radishes they had grown and brought them to him in the cafeteria kitchen. “They were so proud that they each wanted some part of the acknowledgement. I made pickled radishes from them, and the kids all tried them because they grew them. If their parents had served them, they’d never have tried one.” Adds Fonzo: “Growing their own takes away the fear. They know exactly what it is, from a seed. They aren’t afraid of it anymore.” 

Growing their own also fosters appreciation, says Sharon Dahlquist, who gardens with her 4-year-old daughter, Yael. “When we come to the table to eat, understanding where it comes from, whether we grew it or someone else grew it, embodies gratitude.”

The health benefits are pretty convincing too. Florida Hospital’s HealthyKids program, which serves 1,800 overweight or obese children and adolescents, has embraced the garden as a tool to help give patients a healthier frame of mind. HealthyKids medical director Dr. Angela Fals introduced gardening with just some containers in a grassy area outside her office. “As time went on, we sensed the gardening was very important; the kids loved to come.” So they partnered with OJA and their school garden to give the children more ownership. Now, Fals and her team garden with patients and their families once a month at OJA’s community garden, which welcomes anyone to show up and cultivate together every Sunday morning at the large College Park plot. 

The takeaway from Fals is that the more experiential and hands-on learning is with kids, the more life changing and permanent the benefits will be. “It also helps them to dare to taste a delicious vegetable, which usually tastes sweeter and fresher, leading them to accept vegetables a little more,” she says.

 Researcher, educator and private family counselor Kim John Payne—whose book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raiser Happier, Calmer and More Secure Kids has sold nearly a million copies in numerous languages—credits gardening with kids for a host of benefits that include brain development, fewer discipline issues and better sleep. 

For kids up to age four, Payne explains how imitating a parent doing purposeful work builds attachment, which aids in brain development. For kids up to about age 7, it builds what Payne calls “relational credits,” meaning your offspring see your competency and follow along. “You become attuned to one another, so you’ve built connection and loving authority,” says Payne, “which leads to easier times when discipline is needed.” For kids age 7 or 8 and up, they learn to take hold of an environment and own it. “They develop industry —`I can do that!’—rather than inferiority.” 

Brad Jones couldn’t agree more: “In today’s society, we don’t value as much what we can get done. Building a garden together is physical and concrete. I think it’s important for a family to be able to sit back and say, 'Look what we did!’ ” 

Payne also points to how gardening helps ground kids, literally and figuratively. “It offers an antidote to the quick, flashing, buzzing and booming world that they are accustomed to,” says Payne. “It helps them inwardly process their day, creating space for new learning. They also sleep better, because they’ve had a chance to process all the images from the day.”

“Finally,” says Payne, “gardening gives a child a sense of process in a world that is increasingly process-less [because] everything is at our fingertips with one click.” 

Regardless of benefits, what kids care most about, says Leu Gardens’ Bowden, “is how it feels and smells to be outdoors, spending time with their parents.” x

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