Finding time to play outside is a challenge for today’s children—and their parents. Kids are spending seven hours a day interacting with electronic media and less than 30 minutes outdoors. This inactivity is causing weight gain and increased stress among our youth.
In addition, kids today are missing out on life experiences that can’t be found on electronic devices. When they play outside, they develop problem-solving skills as well learn to interact socially. Being in nature lifts their spirits and teaches them to respect nature and their communities.
According to Children & Nature Network, an organization whose mission is to help families get back to nature, the lack of time spent in nature is a very real problem. Called Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD), it’s affecting kids and adults across the U.S. The problem has grown as a result of urbanization, more time spent indoors, and the development of new technology. NDD “contributes to the diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses,” say the experts at Children & Nature Network.
Fortunately, local organizations are introducing kids to gardening. As a result, they’re getting much needed time outdoors while learning to appreciate nature and grow delicious fruits and vegetables. New Earth Farm, Teens with a Purpose, and Seatack Elementary are getting kids off the couch and into the fields to garden.
Let’s see what these unique programs are (literally!) bringing to the table.
PROTECTING THE EARTH
Though “Farmer John” Wilson has always loved plants and gardening, he never thought that farming would be his future. After pursuing other careers, he had a dream of starting his own compost business, which he launched in 1995. Now New Earth Farm is a 21-acre farm in southern Virginia Beach, which produces all-natural, chemical-free produce and products.
It wasn’t until a local school approached him about helping students create a garden that he discovered how much he enjoyed working with children. Since then, Farmer John has helped start 20 school gardens. He and his wife, Kathleen, also host summer camps, field trips, and kids’ cooking classes at their farm. Kathleen, a children’s librarian, tells stories and sings songs about farm life with their young visitors. John says now he loves the teaching as much as he loves being a farmer.
“Having started gardening when I was young makes me realize that some little seeds (pun intended) get planted when you’re young,” he said. “I’ve found, to my surprise, that I happen to love doing these classes and these field trips.”
For John, giving young people a sense of what sustainable agriculture means is important. He wants the kids to learn about simpler lifestyles that will help the earth thrive in the future. That means using the least amount of fossil fuels and energy possible and reducing our impact on the environment.
While the kids do learn about biodiversity and runoff solutions designed to alleviate heavy flooding, John prefers to talk less and let them experience the land their own way—by digging in the dirt, meeting bugs and farm animals, and connecting with nature. This summer, John will be incubating chicken eggs and hopes the timing will be perfect so the kids in the farm’s summer camps will see them hatch.
“The younger they are, the less info you want to give them,” said John. “You just want to give them an experience of a farm and seeing where food grows.”
After the students have learned about the farm, John hopes they’ll remember what they’ve learned as they get older. “I hope they have a great love for agriculture and for fresh food and become at least socially responsible food shoppers,” said John.
CONNECTING WITH COMMUNITY
In Norfolk, teens are getting involved in gardening through Teens with a Purpose (TWP), a non-profit creative youth development organization founded in 2007. According to Dierdre Love, TWP executive director, the organization is a safe place and platform for young people to impact the community and one another in a positive way through peer-led programs and events.
Gardening was not originally a planned activity for the group, which was created to give teens an outlet to express themselves through poetry and music. During their Monday night meetings, Dierdre provided meals to the kids who attended. She used to arrange for fast food simply because it was the easiest and most affordable option to feed so many people.
But in 2013, after a partnership with another group who provided Subway sandwiches as the meal that evening, Dierdre began to explore healthier options for feeding the kids. Having a different kind of meal for the kids “opened my eyes to alternatives,” said Dierdre.
That summer, the teens worked with Norfolk police officers to build their first raised-bed garden on a parking island called the Garden of Amity. Other gardeners also brought the group organic vegetables to plant in their garden. Now TWP currently grows a variety of wildflowers, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and most recently, watermelons.
“When [the kids] started the garden, they were in charge of it,” said Dierdre. “They planted from a seed and watched it grow, and they gave away to help others.”
Now the kids love working out in the garden and look forward to giving their veggies to others in the community.
Devon Carter, 14, says that he enjoys going out into the community to share foods from the garden. “I like being able to include the community and meet new people,” he said. “In our current day, communities aren’t as unified as we could be.”
“I’m proud because we come together just to do a garden,” said Jalik Jordan, 14. “We want to make sure we are planting positivity and taking out negativity.”
BECOMING A LEADER
Even at the elementary level, students are learning the benefits of gardening.
Marie Culver, the gifted resource teacher at Seatack Elementary School in Virginia Beach, has a passion for gardening and loves to share it with her students. Seatack Elementary has several different gardens around campus, including an organic community garden, a pollinator garden, rain garden, compost bins, an ocean friendly garden, and even a Solar System Zenn garden.
One of the most meaningful gardening initiatives at Seatack is the Garden Breakfast Club, which is a group of ten boys who face a variety of challenges, including ADD, anger management, truancy, and other personal issues. Working in the garden promotes leadership skills among these boys. At the same time, they develop life skills, which they can take back to the classroom and their personal lives.
Marie says that she’s seen quite a transformation in her Garden Breakfast Club students. Many have become more focused in the classroom and excel in subjects they were having trouble with before.
One student, 10-year-old Anjel Calderon, emerged very quickly as a leader, according to Marie. With English as his second language, Anjel was very frustrated trying to keep up in school. Through the Garden Breakfast Club, he discovered a new sense of commitment toward his schoolwork.
“Last year, he was more of a follower,” said Marie. “Now he’s learning how to make decisions on his own. He’s able to really speak in an assertive way as a leader.”
“The garden helps me to not get as stressed out,” said Anjel. “My family thinks that it is good for me to go to the garden in the morning because it gets me ready for the day.”
Marie said she urges other Seatack teachers to include the school’s gardens in their lesson plans. For example, a math teacher might create a scavenger hunt in the garden using geometry. Another teacher might combine technology with nature by letting students use iPads to take photos and videos of the gardens. The gardens are also decorated with student artwork, giving everyone a sense of pride and ownership in the garden.
Marie is happy to see her students excited to work outdoors. “I love sharing that experience and exposing them to as much of nature and planting as much as I can,” she said.
It’s easy to find ways to encourage your kids to spend more time in the outdoors this spring. Start with preparing a garden, planting a seed, and watching it grow. Then maybe your child can share her harvest with others. Gardening is an excellent way for kids to develop an appreciation for the environment, a love for their community, and a sense of personal growth. Happy planting!