Garden-based educators know that kids connect with nature, use their natural curiosity to make discoveries and solve problems, and get their developmental needs met in the garden. Research shared by presenters at the American Horticultural Society's annual Children & Youth Garden Symposium in July 2005 confirms the power and importance of the work we do at NGA. In turn, it gives credence to gardening as a way to help children become healthy, capable, and well balanced.
Sharon Lovejoy, author, illustrator, and advocate of children's gardens, began her keynote address by enthusiastically brandishing a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. The book explains and develops the implications of research pointing to children'
s need to spend time outdoors in natural settings. Among other research, Louv's book explores findings from the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois showing that "...children as young as five showed a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms when they engaged with nature."
In Orion magazine, Louv writes that while the neurological mechanism for this response is unknown, it's clear that nature provides kids with experiences that are in sync with the way humans have evolved. He says, "As recently as the 1950s, most U.S. youngsters still had some kind of agricultural connection...their unregimented play was steeped in nature. That kind of exposure to nature has faded dramatically in recent decades, but our need for nature (possibly a physiological one) has not."
Lovejoy urges that we "Leave a wild, untamed section in the garden where nature rules and children can spend time alone to explore their imaginations." We need to allow kids to wonder about things: Instead of giving answers, join them in the process of discovery. "Let them take small chances, touch things, get dirty, and fool around so they can get to know nature on their own terms," she adds.
Fooling around in the garden can also empower our children. Marcia Eames-Sheavly, an innovator in garden-based education, teaches about how garden programs can meet kids' key developmental requirements: to know that they are cared about by others; to feel and believe that they are capable and successful; to know that they're able to influence people and events, to practice helping others through their own generosity; and of course, to have fun. She uses a framework to help educators take advantage of the abundant opportunities for meeting kids' needs in the garden (see Resources, below). In a recent radio commentary, Rob Kanter of the University of Illinois stressed the importance of the research that prompted Louv's book: "There is a cumulative message in all of this. As a society, we need to recognize that trees and green space are not luxuries, but necessary components of healthy human habitat."Resources
Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2005; $24.95)
Human-Environment Research Laboratory, University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne
Marcia Eames-Sheavly's developmental criteria are based on this framework.
This article originally appeared in NGA's print quarterly, Growing Ideas. This newsletter features projects, profiles, and tips that address topics of interest to home, school, and community gardeners. Growing Ideas is mailed free to paid Supporters of NGA. Sign up for a free 6-month trial subscription (two issues).