When The iGeneration Gardens
Good things happen. That’s why teaching kids to garden and live sustainably is as important as ever.
Photos and Story By Kenny Coogan, Florida
Turning off your televisions and mobile devices and spending some uninterrupted time with your family and yard may not only be good for your health. It will also make you smarter.
Originally presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego about six years ago, professors from the Sage Colleges presented a paper titled, “Effect of Mycobacterium vaccae on Learning.”
Mycobacteirum vaccae, a nonpathogenic species of bacteria that lives naturally in soil, has been found to release serotonin, which helps elevate mood and decrease anxiety. Researchers from the Sage Colleges found that mice exposed to this bacteria not only had a reduction of anxiety but were able to complete a maze twice as fast as those who were not exposed.
So if rutabaga races, carrot conquests, bean battles and fennel fencing sound like a whole lot of gardening family fun, get your children outdoors—it will make them healthy and smart. If they resist at first, try, try again. Despite reading a range of articles on the difficulties of engaging children in the chores related to gardening, I have found quite the opposite to be true—kids love getting dirty and helping out.
For the purpose of this article I am referring to those that were born in 2000 or later as the iGeneration. This group of adolescents has never lived without technology. When I take my 110 seventh-grade students to our school garden weekly, despite their wide range of backgrounds and interests, they have all learned the value of working in the garden.
Gardening improves social skills and behavior, increases science achievement scores, appreciation and respect for nature and improves life skills. Gardening can also be a bridge to teaching children about nutrition, responsibility and self-control. As a homesteader, permaculturist and teacher, I encourage you to help change the iGeneration to iGarden—it is good for them and the planet.
Hands On Engagement
Selecting plants that are disease resistant and produce large amounts of fruits will help boost the self-esteem of young gardeners, and are great crops to start off with. Hardy crops that are easy to grow and mature early keep interest high, as there is something to look forward to daily, early on.
Since the attention span is not always long, plant cherry tomatoes instead of beefsteak tomatoes, or Mexican sour gherkins (they look like tiny watermelons) instead of full-size cucumbers.
Giving children ownership of specific spaces in the garden will help with engagement. Letting them help build the beds, shovel the compost or till the soil will create a sense of buy-in. If the raised beds are made out of cement blocks, have your children paint the outside to make the space special. Allowing the kids to choose the plant location in the garden will also increase their investment into the project.
As psychologist Jean Piaget said, “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.”
If the child plants a sun-loving plant in a partial shade location and it doesn’t grow well, they will learn a valuable lesson. If on the other hand, it thrives and lasts more than its projected season, then the child and you have learned an even more valuable lesson.
Stimulate The Senses
Having a hodgepodge of flamboyant flowers between the vegetables or berries allow opportunities of discovery. Choosing edible flowers will be truly a novel delight. Edibles such as nasturtium, calendula, day lilies or hibiscus are easy to identify and good to start out with. Adding a touch of whimsy through garden art is another fun way to motivate kids to take part in the satisfying pastime of gardening. Growing vegetables with a twist such as purple cauliflower, yellow carrots, mottled beans and tropical fruit will generate curiousity among even the most oppositional worker.
Children will help garden more as they become excited about what is growing. Keeping a daily record of the length of a Chinese long bean is not only fun, but helpful for next year’s planting schedule. Many young kids, including the iGeneration, in urban and rural settings, have no idea how vegetables grow or know the taste of a passion fruit or Chinese winged beans directly from the garden.
Exploring fairy gardens, homemade plant signs, hidden gardens and homemade toad houses on the internet will also give your children inspiring garden ideas.
Foster A Sense Of Efficacy
Explaining what you are doing and why you are doing it will also help keep your children involved. When presented with a problem, question or activity, children ask themselves almost immediately, “Can I do this?”
Researchers have said that effectively performing an activity can positively impact subsequent engagement. If you have been successful in the past, you will want to be interested in similar, future activities. If the child believes they can’t perform the task, they will disengage and become uninterested.
In order to strengthen our children’s sense of efficacy in gardening, the task should be only slightly beyond the child’s current levels of proficiency. This is to say, don’t ask them to graft a tree if they have not fully mastered taking cuttings.
At my school, I foster efficacy by scaffolding their learning. Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process, which allows students to successfully reach the end goal. I let them find their own way, which sometimes is not as direct as I would have planned. By only allowing one path to an answer, this leads students to expect answers to always be obvious and linear.
Psychologists in recent years have stated that we typically praise children in this country ineffectively and counterproductively. You can either encourage a fixed or growth mindset. Instead of saying “You’re so smart,” which encourages a fixed mindset, highlighting the characteristic of the child, the smartness, we should be saying things that encourage their growth mindset.
Saying, “Wow, you really worked hard, and you kept at that project until you got it right,” encourages a growth mindset because you’re teaching the child that being able to stick to something and work through a difficult task is important—possibly more important than knowing the answer immediately.
My hope, by encouraging a growth mindset, is that I can turn extrinsic motivation into intrinsic. In this way, they will not only know why homesteading is important, but they also feel inspired to do so.
Providing kid-sized tools will empower them to do gardening tasks correctly and safely.
Allowing choice in the garden will create more buy-in from the kids, which will result in a better work ethic. Permitting them to make a mess and not getting upset when they trample some of the seedlings while they are planting is also important. Stay positive and reward the behaviors you want to see.
Do you or a loved one suffer from nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile device? So do many of our children, which we can use to our advantage. Since mobile devices are in their hands already, have the kids use the devices to participate in gardening—after all, there’s an app for that. Gardening apps can assist with the planting, spacing or identification of your next countryside adventure.
How To Change iGeneration To iGarden
• Be the Change You Want to See
• Garden Together
• Let Them Plant What They Want
• Require Them to Garden Prior to Electronics
• Reward for Homesteading
• Go to Local Garden Events
• Discuss Gardening Together
Easy Starter Crops
The best starter plants for kids are ones that grow quickly, are hardy and have larger fruits. Here are a few good options to try:
• Baby carrots
• Bush beans
• Cuban oregano
• Green onions
• Mustard greens
An App For That
• Garden Designer: Before planting, digitally layout plants, buildings, paths, ponds or garden furniture.
• Garden Squared: Assists in planning and tracking of square foot gardens, patio container gardens, seedlings, staging and raised garden beds. Details of every plot can be saved along with a journal entry/task tracker.
• Gardenate: Includes local planting calendar, ability to track plantings and predict harvest dates. Data, including photos, can be emailed, saved as a PDF or shared with your other phones or tablets.
• iScape: Take a picture of your home and tap the screen to add curb appeal, such as trees, shrubs and planters.
• Plantifier: Crowd-source free app, that helps with identifying plants based on leaf or flower patterns.
Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA, is a pet and garden columnist and grows mostly edibles on his one acre homestead. He was awarded the Outstanding Florida Association of Science Teacher’s Beginning Teacher of the Year award for 2015-2016. Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more about gardening with children.