Maybe you’re feeling cooped up after spending rainy days indoors and two years’ worth of pandemic-related closures. Maybe you’re inspired by the bulbs blooming outside, new growth on shrubs and trees, or increased bird activity? Or perhaps your child is just bouncing off the walls and needs to move? Whatever the reason, it’s a great time to get outdoors and to embrace the benefits of time outside.
As scientists take a deeper look into the research on the mental and physical benefits to being outside, they are finding evidence that being in nature (in big or small ways) improves feelings of happiness, reduces stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and boosts the immune system.
Getting outside can be a chance to reset, even for toddlers in the midst of a meltdown. Time outdoors benefits children’s physical development from their head to their toes; the wider horizons outside benefit eye development while the uneven surfaces of natural ground encourage healthy development of the bones, muscles, and ligaments in a child’s foot.
Getting out into the garden has many benefits for families, and having a child-centered approach can make it more fun and less stressful for parents and children alike. The first step is tuning into our own expectations, priorities, as well as our child’s interests and age and stage of development. An afternoon working in the garden alongside a young child may be chaotic and messy, but knowing this upfront can help us adults relax and have fun exploring alongside your child.
Give your child something to do, and use “do” language (it’s more effective than “don’ts!”): “We keep the soil in the planter box” or “This is a tool for digging. It’s not safe to swing the shovel. You can dig with the shovel here.” When we give them a job, child-sized tools and some freedom to do it in their own way, at their own pace, children feel empowered and enjoy the experience.
Big seeds are easier for little ones to handle. Peas can be started outside, while sunflowers, beans, corn, or squash can be started in small pots indoors in a sunny spot. Short on space? Strawberries and small greens like lettuces grow well in containers. Cherry tomatoes, peas, and radishes can also be grown in pots with a little support, and are fun for children. Even children who are hesitant to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables can be inspired to taste new foods when they have been involved in helping it grow.
Children’s books like Anywhere Farm, Planting a Rainbow, The Surprise Garden, The Tiny Seed, can inspire littler gardeners. Grown-ups looking for some inspiration and information on the benefits of time outside may enjoy Last Child in the Woods and Vitamin N (Richard Louv), and There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather (Linda Åkeson McGurk).
Here’s to a happy season of gardening!
Meredith Tufts is Parenting Now’s “First Three Years” program manager, and a parenting educator. She wrote this for The Chronicle.