Five reasons to introduce your child to community gardening
If our children are our future, how can we ensure they are passionate about protecting and multiplying our food sources? Educators agree engaging children in gardening reaps both physical and emotional benefits. If you don’t see yourself as a backyard gardener, how can you introduce your children to the importance and joy of growing their own food? A school or community garden can be your answer to cultivating these five rewards.
Children who learn about healthy food are inspired to make more nutritious food choices.
Studies demonstrate a link between exposure to gardening and vegetable consumption by children, according to the International Junior Master Gardener Program. Master gardener Ceci Leonard, who developed and leads the Oklahoma County Extension Junior Master Gardener program at nine metro schools says: “If they plant it, they’ll eat it.” Even children who don’t typically like vegetables may become curious enough to try a carrot or some lettuce with a little ranch dressing.
Community gardens with access to free, fresh food can be life-sustaining for children with limited family resources. Restore OKC’s Restore Farms Director Ann Miller established the nonprofit organization’s partnership with two northeast Oklahoma City elementary schools, Thelma Parks and Martin Luther King, to develop classroom gardens.
Miller says children are often surprised to learn that vegetables don’t originate at the grocery store. Teachers knew the school gardens provided value when they encountered two students fighting over recently-harvested radishes.
Gardens provide a refreshing change of pace from classroom learning.
Children are typically most engaged through hands-on learning, and students who struggle academically may excel in an outdoor, interactive classroom. Joel Bramhall, education director at Myriad Botanical Gardens, describes the unique partnership between John Rex Charter School and the Myriad as the only one of its kind anywhere—an urban school in a botanic garden.
Prior to the traditional school year being cut short, as Garden Groundbreakers, John Rex students were involved in experiential enrichment with a weekly gardening curriculum including plant structure and processes, environmental stewardship and healthy eating during their instructional day. Bramhall recalls a student remarking, “Some students learn about nature from textbooks, but here at the gardens, we have it around us every day.”
Miller, who’s also a horticulturalist and educator, asserts kids are the best gardeners. Miller describes the delight children experience when they plant seeds and first notice the root structures developing as simply magical.
Amy Young, executive director of SixTwelve, a Paseo Arts District community education center for all ages, is so convinced of the importance of community gardens that she has tailored her career to promote growing and preparing food with children. SixTwelve’s pre-K and after-school programs for ages 6 to 17 include teaching gardens, immersing kids in nature “from seed to fork” with a goal of creativity and sustainability.
Children are involved in the entire process of growing food, preparing their harvest and eating the fruits of their labors. SixTwelve’s director of permaculture Paul Mays urges parents to involve children in gardening and cooking from an early age, and above all else, to just get outside!
Community gardens promote relationships.
Community gardening is a team sport. According to the International Junior Master Gardener Program, studies show that fifth, sixth and seventh grade students developed better interpersonal relationship skills after participating in a school or community garden program. Earlier this year, middle school students at John Rex planted a pizza garden with several OKC Thunder players.
“This was one of the most fun experiences we’ve ever had here at the gardens,” said Bramhall. “It’s not very often that you have professional basketball players coming in to work with your students, especially when it’s nature-based learning.”
Working together toward a common goal provides a sense of accomplishment through collaboration. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and expected to launch again this fall, adults and children are welcome volunteers in SixTwelve’s community garden on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. In exchange, volunteers may take home freshly-harvested garden produce and eggs from the henhouse. An unexpected bonus occurs in making a new friend or two.
Miller believes children benefit most from being involved in an organization with adults who know which plants will likely result in success. Restore Farms, which is helping solve the nutrition needs of the surrounding food desert by offering fresh, free vegetables from their gardens, provides volunteer opportunities for adults and children on Friday mornings and the second Saturday of each month. To accommodate for social distancing while still serving neighbors, Restore OKC is currently limiting the number of volunteers and accepting only one family at a time to garden at partner schools.
Community gardens can spark career interests.
We typically expose children to traditional career choices — doctor, lawyer, teacher. But introducing children to horticulture and agriculture can introduce a new myriad of career options. Miller approaches her role at Restore Farms with the goal of assisting students in finding their passions.
Last fall Restore Farms launched a paid, part-time student internship program for seventh through 12th graders. Students, chosen primarily from the surrounding neighborhoods, are sometimes at-risk for dropping out of school to help support their families.
Interns work year-round, learning through hands-on activities about all aspects of gardening at the farm while receiving a diverse education in running a successful business. Interns who stay with the program through high school are offered college scholarships through Langston University.
Community gardens promote sustainability.
Sustainability is the concept of considering our impact on the environment for our generation and generations to come. Organic gardening is gardening without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides with the overall goal of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Establishing a community or backyard garden ensures healthy local food choices.
Children exposed to community gardens learn from experienced gardeners how composting, water conservation and other smart gardening practices can have a positive environmental impact. And then, many of these same practices can be adopted at home. Maintaining and preserving our precious natural resources is a goal every child can embrace.
Community gardens abound in the Oklahoma City metro, ideal for your family to reap these rewards, enjoy fresh air and make new friends. Learn more about the current policies, programming and volunteer opportunities through Restore OKC at restoreokc.org, Myriad Gardens at oklahomacitybotanicalgardens.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series exploring the world of gardening with children. Debbi Marshall is a master gardener, retired U.S. probation officer and Grammie to three rambunctious, pint-sized gardeners.