According to national statistics, the average elementary school child spends more than six hours a day playing video games, watching television or using a computer. Scientific studies have looked at the ways in which environment influences a child’s concentration skills. The research indicates that children are better able to focus after time spent in open outdoor areas, suggesting that natural settings have a positive influence on psychological health.
With childhood obesity reaching epic proportions, it is important to remember that physical fitness need not be all about tracks, treadmills and organized sports. Play out-of-doors encourages children of all ages to become familiar with the mechanics of their bodies. As if by magic, running, jumping, balancing, squatting, crawling and swinging seem nearly effortless when accomplished during unstructured outdoor play.
By Christine Ginnity
Youth Program Coordinator
Gardens on Spring Creek
Children who lack direct experience with nature are more disconnected with the natural world than ever before. Providing the opportunity for children to immerse themselves in nature and utilize all their senses allows them to experience the natural world. Interaction with nature inspires art, literature and scientific inquiry. Experiential outdoor play creates opportunities to practice “work”, understand seasonal changes in nature, and sharpen skills of observation and identification. Outdoor exploration and discovery lead to a lifelong joy of learning.
Children who have the opportunity to engage in simple nature experiences develop a sense of wonder and respect for the Earth. The act of planting seeds and nurturing their growth teaches responsibility. The chance to handle small creatures – ladybugs, roly-polys, worms and toads hones the characteristics of sensitivity and compassion. A child who learns to appreciate the natural world will grow to be an adult who will care for and protect it.
A tree to climb, a shady spot behind a lilac hedge or an empty patch of soil for digging are all you need to get acquainted with nature. However, I believe that a garden is a nearly perfect place for a child to learn how to interact with the natural world. A vegetable garden is a thing of wonder! Consider planting fruits, vegetables and ornamental annuals and perennials that have special appeal to children.
Take into account those with interesting and unexpected visual appeal – the ornamental Easter egg plant (Solanum Ovigerum), money plant (Lunaria Annua) or walking stick kale (Brassica oleracea var. longata). Plants with enticing fragrances such as double bubble mint agastache (Agastache cana), chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) or grape-scented Iris (Iris pallida ‘Albo Variegata’) are always a hit.
Be sure to include plants for tasting – if you help grow it, it will taste good. I watched elementary school children lap up blanched Brussels sprouts as if they were candy this summer! Other favorite plants to taste include strawberries, raspberries and carrots. Finally, plants that can be picked for bouquets – zinnias are a favorite of mine.
A special addition to the vegetable garden is to create wild spaces for kids (and grown-ups too) to explore and experience the natural world. Places to move, climb, perch, and hide, spots for imaginative play, scientific inquiry, privacy to read, write, sit quietly and listen, breathe and truly experience the life around us.
One way to achieve a special space is to incorporate plants such as weeping mulberry (Morus alba) and Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) whose pendulous branches create enchanting spaces for creative play. Consider a wattle structure – a funny name for a frame of rods or stakes interwoven with twigs or tree branches. Long willow branches make great stakes. Press the branches firmly, several inches into the soil and then weave smaller twigs to create a privacy screen. For additional seasonal interest, plant gourds to cover your wattle. Even a handful of tall bamboo stakes becomes a magical outdoor hideout when planted with scarlet runner (Phaseolus coccineus) or rattlesnake (Phaseolus vulgaris) beans. Create a sunflower house just like the one in Eve Bunting’s storybook by the same name – plant Russian mammoth (Helianthus annuus) sunflowers in a large circle and once they have flowered, tie the flower heads with twine and climb in!
Short on outdoor space of your own? The Gardens on Spring Creek is your community botanic garden. We offer several options for incorporating nature and gardening into your life. The Gardens on Spring Creek features a variety of ornamental theme gardens, playful educational opportunities and a place to relax. Adult and youth programs are offered year-round. Visit our Children’s Garden to see interesting plants, intriguing hideouts and lots of roly-polys, ladybugs and our Koi pond.
Our physical environment matters. Spending time in nature improves our mental and physical health, fosters environmental stewardship and inspires us to increase our capacity for creativity and life-long learning.