Enchantment, Not Weeds
I’ve recently been privileged to spend garden time with many groups of children. Some gathered at our local library for our annual Fairy House program, in which kids create all manner of fanciful constructions using natural materials, from flowers and petals and leaved and buds to shells and feathers, moss and bark. The other groups were delightedly planting edibles and ornamentals they grew from seed. In both cases, many of their parents commented curiously on their child’s level of interest, usually saying that these kids were not particularly interested in gardening at home. What made them so engaged?
I think several factors played a part: for one thing, no weeding was involved (!). Also, the Fairy House program excludes parents except as passive onlookers and actively discourages adult interference. There is supervision and oversight, of course, but the childrens’ own creativity is allowed full rein and they are also allowed the luxury of constructive failure. They are offered a wide range of materials to experiment with and given encouragement as needed, but they get to experience a little frustration as well as the soaring triumph of success when their own ideas become workable.
Hands On Ownership
In the other case, we were planting at Owen’s Playground, an accessible play space that’s rich with marvelous climbing boulders as well as swings and slides and so forth. Most of the kids took occasional breaks to play between plantings, but nearly all of them returned quickly to their work, which they took quite seriously. After all, all humans seek some kind of meaningful activity, and home chores don’t always stack up favorably against a community project that combines good works and good fun.
In both settings, the hands-on aspect was a significant factor. Whether from a home school group or a regular school program, the children had raised their plants from seed. They had watered and tended them for several months as we all waited for planting time to arrive. Once it did, each group came in turn to plant their own offerings as well as a plentiful supply of other colorful things, from Pink Flamingo chard and alpine strawberries to purple perilla and gorgeous amaranths.
Nurturing And Gentle Guidance
Nurturing their own seedlings seemed to give the kids a deeper respect and even fondness for other plants as well. Having cared for the seedlings, they fully realized that plants can live or die and that each of us can influence their fate. That sense of responsibility led them to (largely) treat plants more like kittens or puppies than like inanimate objects. The communal aspect certainly played a part as well, since in each setting kids teamed up and worked together very happily, finding support and affirmation in a shared creative process. Just as the Fairy House participants were free to try out new ideas, the playground planters were told what each plant would look like when full grown and encouraged to place them where they could look wonderful.
When it comes to instructing kids, I am a huge fan of gentle guidance rather than over-controlling. I feel fortunate (usually) to have grown up in the 50s, when parenting was horrifyingly hands-off by today’s standards. The kids in our middle class neighborhood were encouraged to play outside all day, as long as we showed up for meals and went to bed on time. My brothers and I experienced this as mostly benign neglect, taking full advantage of our freedom to ride bikes to the library daily, play in the nearby woods, climb trees, build forts, and mess about with boats on the local river. Back then, nobody seemed worried about possible dangers and I don’t recall anything awful happening to any of us until the 60s crashed over us, bringing Viet Nam, an ocean of drugs, and some rather less savory freedoms in their wake.
Kid Gardening Is Different
For the past century or so, gardening has ranked high among America’s favorite hobbies. Most folks grew at least a few tomatoes and flowers, and many raised much of their own food. Sadly, things are changing fast. A fascinating government report issued in 2013 shows that on average, we now enjoy about 5 hours a day of free time, most of which is spent watching tv, playing computer games, and socializing on line or in real life. We spend 20 minutes reading, 19 minutes exercising, and 17 minutes relaxing and thinking. Gardening isn’t even on the list.
Gardening conferences these days are attended by a greying, largely female audience. If horticulture is losing ground, growing food is gaining somewhat, largely thanks to renewed interest in food quality and safety. However, gardening is no longer a common family activity (especially when weeding is required). What’s more, children spend far more time indoors than past generations did. When they are outside, it’s apt to be as part of a team, involved in a sport or game. That’s fine, yet team sports don’t teach us how to enjoy nature. Unstructured outdoor play is sadly rare, and many children are not even sure how to interact with the natural world.
Hands On, Hands Off
Thus, I am enchanted to gently guide children in hands-on outdoor activities, whether it involves creating imaginative habitats to delight themselves or planting public places for hundreds of people to enjoy. It’s heartening to watch children find such joy in playing with garden gleanings that would otherwise end up in our compost, or in devising a magical forest of annuals for a playground. Even without (or especially without) adult suggestions, the range and scope of their imaginative makings is impressive and often unexpected.
If this sounds like fun to you as well, please pick up the torch. To get started, find a spot or two where such activities can be enjoyed by your children, grandchildren, or neighborhood children. Create appropriate safety guidelines, then stand back as the youngsters make a fairy house or plant a P-Patch or decorate a public space for everyone to enjoy. If we’re lucky, they’ll become tomorrow’s gardeners, alive to the living world. It’s hugely important, because when we encourage children to play creatively in the garden, we offer a bridge to the natural world that can last a lifetime.