From snails to dirty nails, Emma Cook learns how to involve the children in an enjoyable plot – plus six of the best garden adventures for little blossoms
“Mr Gardener, why do plants and flowers have to die?” asks my four-year-old son Louis, idly pulling the yellow leaves from a wizened mint bush that looks as if it has lost the will to live. “Well, often they don’t die,” says Chris Collins, a gardening expert, standing in a dark and derelict corner of my London garden, a longneglected stronghold of weeds, nettles and brambles. “Herbaceous ones can go underground for winter,” he says cheerfully. “It’s like their little home under the soil, and then they shoot up again in spring.”
Louis looks relieved but also a little unconvinced. That mint is dead, definitely. Still, it’s his first introduction to gardening and within minutes we’ve touched on mortality, regeneration and renewal, possibly more educational than two hours in front of a Harry Potter DVD. “It’s practical and hands-on; there’s art and drawing when you design the garden with them. It’s also about giving them responsibility when they look after plants, letting them make that connection between the environment and recycling,” Collins enthuses.
Collins, who is Blue Peter’s resident gardener, has teamed up with the PlantforLife campaign to encourage children to take more interest in nature and to get their hands dirty. As part of the initiative, he has created four garden designs for a new booklet,Nature’s Nurture.
PlantforLife claims that recent research links gardening with increased levels of physical and psychological health, helping to increase children’s curiosity, encourage their empathy levels and instil social-consciousness. In terms of learning, the theory goes like this: children absorb information in a way completely different from adults.
They thrive on interaction, play and discovery, and hands-on sensory experience. “Plants, together with soil, sand and water, provide settings that can be manipulated,” says Vicki Stoecklin, an American expert in child development who specialises in designing play environments for children. “Natural elements provide for open-ended play that emphasises unstructured creative exploration.”
Stoecklin believes that all children have an instinctive desire to interact with nature but that it is suppressed by lack of opportunity and parents who spend too much time indoors. “Children have a unique way of knowing the natural world. You have only to look at the attraction children have for fairytales set in nature and populated with animal characters. There’s also convincing evidence that the way children feel in pleasing natural environments improves creative problem-solving and creativity.”
Until now, my fantasy child-friendly garden would have been a sandpit and a climbing frame at one end, and a sun lounger near by where I can recline with a gin and tonic. In reality, whenever nature intervenes unexpectedly, I have to admit to some anxiety, as in: “Louis, there’s a wasp near your mouth. Stay still. Don’t panic.”
And when something blooms it’s such a rarity that to pick it is strongly discouraged, as in: “Don’ t pick another rose; right, that’s it, inside.” Oh dear. Wrong and wrong again. “I say let them touch and pick anything they want, as long as it’s not poisonous,” says Collins. “It’s part of getting in touch with that sensory experience.”
I shall, of course, feel entirely to blame if my offspring develop biophobia, a condition that starts in early childhood. “It’s a fear or distrust of nature,” says Dr Sandra Scott, a psychiatrist involved in the PlantforLife initiative. “Children are increasingly growing up in concrete environments where they’re learning about nature in school yet lack direct experience and contact with the real thing.”
Rather than viewing our gardens as extensions of our living rooms, we should treat them as mini science labs. “It’s where you can learn about nutrition, health and interaction between the species,” says Dr Scott. “Gardening can also help to refine children’s fine motor skills through active play, improving their balance, agility and co-ordination.” There is also some evidence, she says, that interaction with any outside space can help to reduce violence, vandalism and bullying.
The best way to encourage your child is to explore the garden together, says Collins. That means embracing every aspect of livestock out there, from spiders to garden slugs. He says: “If children are running from something, it’s not good. They need to be asking ‘Why?’ ” At least Louis scored highly on that one.
At one point the three of us crouch down, scrutinising the soil. I spot something small and red with pincers moving through the blades of grass. “What’s that?” exclaims Louis. “It looks like a small scorpion,” I suppress a shudder. “Erm, it’s an earwig”, says Collins, and picks it up to show Louis, something I would never have done but feel duty-bound to do now.
I am extremely encouraged when Collins starts talking about ready-made, low-maintenance areas for children. “Children are impatient and it’s good to create something that they can interact with straight away.” In reality this means going to a garden centre and parting with cash, but there is the pay-off of instant gratification. Collins takes us to Ginkgo garden centre in Hammersmith, West London, and guides us to plants that stimulate our senses: lavender and strawberries for smell and sight; chives for taste; a shiny green succulent for touch; and a Leucothoe scarletta for sound — it rattles when you touch it.
When we get back Louis and his sister, two-year-old Evie, become absorbed, carrying plants to Collins, helping to dig holes and pat the soil down. There is dirt under their nails, in their hair, and they love it. This is another aspect to be wholeheartedly encouraged. “A bit of dirt is healthy. There’s been anti-allergy work that shows children get less coughs and colds if they’re exposed to dirt,” says Emma Citron, a psychologist specialising in child development. “I deal with a lot of cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder and I think that a bit of dirt is certainly healthy; it’s also about being relaxed and earthy, getting back to basics.”
The results are swift. Within an hour, Collins has created a “sensory” space; a visual feast of French lavender, wild strawberries and chives for a summer salad. Both my children head straight for the patch whenever they’re in the garden, to touch, smell, pat and dig. When Louis picks off all the lavender heads, I don’t even tell him off; I’m sure he’s just expressing his positive affinity with nature.
For details of Nature’s Nurture and gardening tips from Chris Collins, visit www.plantforlife.info
SIX OF THE BEST GARDENING ADVENTURES FOR LITTLE BLOSSOMS
GARDEN ORGANIC, RYTON GARDENS, WARWICKSHIREThese plush organic gardens, run by Garden Organic, the national charity for organic growing, are holding a week devoted to getting your sprogs into digging dirt. The children’s week, from Monday, has different activities every day, from making insect masks to sowing seeds and making compost. And every Wednesday throughout the summer Ryton Gardens runs tours for children, followed by a gardening activity.
Need to know Children’s Week, May 29 to June 2, at Ryton Organic Gardens. Visit www.gardenorganic.org.uk, 024-7630 3517. The school holidays scheme, July 26 to August 30;
CHISWICK HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN, WEST LONDONThis garden’s popular open days can attract more than 1,000 people, with activities that include picking herbs for bread dough, which kids can take home and bake, and looking at a bee-hive in action. The garden is always looking for volunteers and holds relaxed drop-in work sessions when families can do the gardening.
Need to know The next open day is June 18, 1pm-5pm. Visit www.kitchengarden.org.uk for more information, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
BROOKHOUSE URBAN GARDENING SCHEME, CREWEThis project started with a few bored kids asking Eugene and Susie Mitchell, a local Crewe couple, if they could help with the gardening. That was three years ago and it has now transformed into a children’s gardening session every Saturday and Sunday morning, with 13 allotments and more than 40 kids.
Need to know Visit www.bugs.org.uk or call 01270 652721
NATIONAL BOTANIC GARDEN OF WALES, CARMARTHENSHIRE Schools across Wales can help to design and plant these botanical gardens through an education scheme. The botanic garden also runs a photographic scheme for children, awarding a special certificate to anyone who can snap an insect sucking nectar from a flower that they have planted and nurtured.
Need to know www.gardenofwales.org.uk or call 01558 668768 to get involved.
E-mail your photographs to email@example.com
NATIONAL TRUST, NATIONWIDE Days aimed at getting families into gardening are regularly run by the National Trust at their homes and gardens. Melford Hall, in Suffolk, for instance, throws a family garden fun day; while Yorkshire kids can take part in a garden trail at Beningbrough Hall.
Need to know For information about events in your area, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk or call 0870 4584000.
DUCHY ORIGINALS GARDEN ORGANIC FOR SCHOOLS PROJECT, NATIONWIDE This campaign sets up gardens near or in schools around the country. Kids can get hands-on experience on how to grow veg and learn more about where food comes from.