My kids absolutely love it when I let them get messy and dirty — especially when they're outside. Because they love it so much, it's easy to encourage them to help plant things in a garden because they know that means they get to play in the dirt. Science says there are major benefits to gardening with kids, and the experts I spoke to about the subject heartily agree. When they dig in the dirt and plant seeds, not only are they having fun, but they're learning, boosting their immune systems, and reaping major psychological benefits.
Cleaning dirt out from underneath my children's fingernails after playing in the dirt is a chore that I personally choose to ignore on a regular basis because of the frequency with which it happens and the fight my kids put up when I try to do it. But luckily, according to an interview by Lulu Garcia-Navarro for NPR with researcher Jack Gilbert, Ph.D., author of Dirt is Good, exposure to the bacteria in dirt when children play outdoors can help build a healthy immune system. So, while it may be somewhat lazy parenting on my part to not engage in this tedious chore, it might actually be helping keep my kids healthy.
In addition to the immune-boosting benefits of kids getting dirty in a garden, gardening itself can have a positive psychological impact on children, according to Dr. Deborah Zlotnik, a psychologist with Children's National. Dr. Zlotnik points out how children in the digital age can use gardening as a form of stress relief. "Research indicates that connecting with nature has profound effects on psychological well-being by increasing positive emotions and reducing stress. When children and adolescents are outside they can practice mindfulness and focus on the current moment and use all of their senses to be in the here and now," she tells Romper. "By engaging in an activity and focusing on the plants, children can distract themselves from everyday stressors of school and peer relationships. As children and teenagers are often focused on electronics and social media, gardening can be a great way for them to engage in a positive prosocial activity. When children have engaged in pleasant activities, they are better able to handle other stressors and are better able to regulate their emotions."
Maureen Healy, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, and children's emotional health expert at Growing Happy Kids, says that the repetition involved in planting is part of the reason why gardening can help provide a mood boost for children who participate. "Children that learn to do things repeatedly like water a garden develop pathways in their brain that say, 'I can do this' and they see the results of their actions. It is only through repetitive action (not periodic) do we help our children develop healthy habits, whether it's learning to breathe and calm or care for things in their environment such as pets and plants," she says.
Along the same lines, a child can learn concepts that they may be having trouble grasping inside of a classroom when parents take learning outdoors and into the garden. Psychologist Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., and co-directer of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital explains how the science of gardening can help kids learn STEM concepts. "Growing things involves science — in fact, it’s living science. Kids can learn about photosynthesis, the importance of fertilization, the circle of life, soil composition, and plant biology. Math skills are essential to planning out a garden, from how many seeds are needed to design skills. Building and planning a garden is great engineering practice that includes taking into account proper drainage, the position of the sun, among other things," she tells Romper.
Healy also emphasizes the connection that gardening with children can create between a parent and a child, noting that this type of activity is something that busy parents might benefit from as well. "Gardening is a great way to form a healthy connection with your children because you're learning together, you're focused on a positive and productive activity, and you're both outside experiencing the joy of nature," she says. "Parents who can work alongside children, have fun, share some laughs, and do an activity like gardening are more relaxed and can learn to see the best in others. Many parents today are rushing from one thing to the next and miss the opportunity to fully connect to their children, which something like gardening forces them to do."
The general health benefits of being outside are another key part of why gardening is beneficial for kids and parents alike. Dr. Braaten explains that gardening can contribute to a child's overall health in not only the mind, but the body as well. "Being outdoors is associated with many positive indicators of emotional well-being. It decreases stress and improves mood. It improves overall fitness and decreases obesity. When kids are outdoors, they tend to be very active and doing activities that increase their motor skills, such as climbing, running, and jumping," she says.
Healy says that even kids who dislike being outdoors may be encouraged to spend more time soaking up some much needed vitamin D if engaged with a parent in an activity like gardening. "Boys and girls who can find a balance between indoors and outdoors activities tend to be calmer and more relaxed than their peers. The nervous system of a child relaxes when its in nature. Of course, there are children who don't enjoy being outdoors, but usually that means they don't have a task they like such as helping plant a garden, rake, or walk the dog, as examples," she says.
Calmer and more relaxed are definitely words that I want to be able to use to describe my own kids more often. So, it looks like I might need to take Healy's advice and get outside in the garden with them more often.