Spending time with children in the garden is an experience they will always remember. Teach and encourage them to dig and plant – and care for other living things.

When it comes to kids, I think that very few of us – gardeners or simply grown-ups – are really experts on how to share our love of gardening or nature.

We’re lucky we have elementary school teachers who know how to engage children in science topics, and what material is suitable at what age. We’re lucky to have our Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens with wonderful docents and teachers as well as a children’s garden, reaching thousands of school kids every year. Our impressive Science Museum, Explore & More, Boys and Girls Clubs and camps all put lots of energy into introducing the wonders of plant and animal life to growing minds.

But is any of this enough?

In an earlier, more rural society, it was the natural state of things that many kids grew up exploring the woods, getting muddy in a creek, or at least playing outside in the yard. In his landmark book, “The Last Child in the Woods” (Algonquin Books, 2008), Richard Louv describes “nature deficit disorder,” lamenting the lack of this exposure. His premise is that many mental, emotional and physical health problems relate directly to the lack of exposure to nature during childhood.

He offers solutions for re-establishing that connection – obviously more difficult now than sending little Dick, Jane and Sally “out to play.”

It’s not that every country kid learned to love nature, to respect science, or to care about other living things. Nor did they all become gardeners. Certainly my country upbringing deeply influenced me: I spent most of my play time outside, much of it alone in the woods.

Also I had Grandpa to trail after, in the garden and through the fields, where he taught me about soil and plant roots, and to love birds, worms and snakes.

Even when a new neighbor became my friend, we built forts and collected plants or rocks with our little sisters – no Barbie dolls for us.

My dreams were about helping animals and making a garden. On the other hand I also knew boys in the country who did not develop compassion; they damaged trees, stomped on wildflowers, and wanted to kill insects, birds and snakes. Still, maybe some matured to become biologists, conservationists, naturalists, foresters or farmers – at least the exposure could have opened those doors.

I have discussed this quandary – the effect of the newer distant relationship with nature – with some younger people who don’t necessarily agree with the premise. My daughter said, “Mom, they may not have had country childhoods, but a large percentage of people in my generation are extremely enlightened about ecology and environmental concerns.”

It’s also true that millennials are discovering gardening with considerable passion, according to statistics and green marketing polls. So somehow a percentage of youth did get the connection.

But what got those kids interested?

My classroom project

Recently an elementary school teacher asked me to present a program about plants to 85 second graders. It sounded like a nightmare – not my expertise – but she is my stepdaughter, Becky. And so I dug in …

I know what worked for my daughter at that age – outside, hands-on – just one or two little girls planting seeds in egg cartons, picking flowers on our hikes, having nature scavenger hunts. But just because I was a decent Mommy doesn’t translate to inspiring 85 kids in a cafeteria.

What I do know – and applied to the challenge: Kids are physical. They learn with several senses. Also, second-graders are at a sweet age, and it’s seemed like a ripe time for teaching gentleness and compassion for little living things. This was my class:

Learning about herbs

We covered eight tables with newspaper and buckets of potting mix, with a little plastic pot per child. Nearby teachers were prepped with full-sized plants and watering cans. First we talked about what plants do for us besides being food, leading to: “Herbs are plants we use for flavoring, fragrance (smell), and sometimes medicines or teas.”

Then we passed out leaves of oregano, basil, lavender and coriander plants to squeeze, smell, taste and answer, “What does this remind you of? What could we do with it?” (Always review the lesson that you must never taste or eat anything unless a responsible grown-up gives it to you; never ever try eating things you find outside.)

Then the kids filled up their plastic pots with potting mix, getting their hands into it. We distributed the little seedlings (some oregano, basil, lavender etc.) We held them and looked: baby plants, with tiny roots! With careful instructions, they planted them, and went to the teachers for a sprinkle of water.

A couple of extras: We let them all take the extra soil mix home in baggies, and I gave them sunflower seeds with instructions for growing those at home as well. And we talked about care – that it takes some attention and care to help a young plant grow up; some might not even make it, but it’s so wonderful when you succeed. Some herb recipes and care instructions went home to the parents.

To do at home

Many wonderful books and online resources suggest gardening and nature activities with kids, but the important thing for any adults with kids in your life: Give the gift of your attention and time. I don’t mean asking little folks to pull weeds for hours or do your labor. That can be a turn-off. (For certain ages, having chores and meaningful work are great for self-esteem and life lessons.)

In the garden let them rake, dig and feel the soil; let them plant and water with a little coaching; let them help with harvest. In the woods, carry a field guide and together try to identify insects, plants, birds. Look under rocks and logs to see what’s going on.

Bigger projects will follow for other days, but even the simplest things may be something they remember. And your efforts could help to produce a forest biologist or agronomist – or at least someone who cares about nature and makes a garden.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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