As we enter the summer season, many parents are wondering how to keep their kids busy without always being glued to screens indoors. One way to get them outside is to start a family garden.
Written by: Sandi Schwartz
Growing fruits and vegetables together as a family can be a fun, engaging, and calming activity. In addition to the general physical and mental health benefits of being outside in nature, gardening offers a healthy distraction, provides a chance for some light exercise, encourages children to eat healthier, and builds community. There are also some incredible new discoveries about how soil can help improve mood. “Spending time in nature doing activities like gardening helps reduce stress and allows us to recover from tense situations more quickly,” explains Sandi Schwartz, author of Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer (Quill Driver Book/Linden Publishing). She adds, “It is special when we can pick fruits and vegetables grown in our own backyard and savor them at our dinner table. We have dabbled in growing our own tomatoes and peppers, which the children absolutely love doing. It’s a wonderful experience for them to pick the produce and play a role in creating a healthy meal for our family that incorporates the food we grew ourselves.” Schwartz’s book highlights five reasons why gardening can help children feel happier and calmer:
Healthy Distraction. Engaging with a garden helps children feel more mindful and get lost in the moment, distracting them from their worries. One study showed that after 30 minutes of gardening, participants’ stress hormone levels dropped, and they felt happier after the activity.
Exercise. Gardening also provides some light exercise from digging, lifting, carrying, and bending up and down. Exercise helps kids feel better as a result of their body producing endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. Exercise also reduces the level of stress hormones in the body like adrenaline and cortisol, helping kids feel calmer.
Eat Healthier. Gardening can motivate kids to eat healthier foods that make them feel better. When kids are invested in growing their own fruits and vegetables, they feel more connected and want to enjoy the “fruit of their labor.” By encouraging them to eat healthier through gardening, they will hopefully choose foods that nourish them instead of junk foods filled with sugar. It’s important for children to eat less sugar for numerous health reasons, but also for their mental health. Sugary foods can increase anxiety and even cause kids to feel gloomy.
Builds Community. Whether it is family bonding in the garden, sharing produce and gardening stories with friends and neighbors, or volunteering in a community garden, that social interaction also plays a major role in boosting kids’ well-being. Experts explain that the most important way to feel happier is through positive relationships, so gardening can provide a vehicle for children to connect with others over a healthy hobby.
Soil. Recent research has found that the simple act of touching soil can reduce stress and improve mood. This is because a bacteria in soil called mycobacterium vaccae has been shown to stimulate areas of the brain that produce serotonin, a hormone that makes us feel better. It thrives in soil that is enriched with organic matter like fruits and vegetables. Researchers have found that eating trace amounts of soil on garden vegetables helps people manage stress and enhance brain function.
Sandi recommends the following steps to add gardening to your children’s lives:
• Start a family garden in your backyard.
• If you do not have the space for a garden, consider starting slow by growing a few herbs on your windowsill or one vegetable at a time in a large flowerpot.
• Engage your children by buying them their own gardening tools, asking them to pick out the types of produce they want to grow, and using the produce you grow to cook meals together.
• Look for opportunities to volunteer in a local community garden.
• Register your children for a gardening club or start your own in your community.
For more information, please visit www.ecohappinessproject.com