Start Digging: How Gardening Boosts Children's Mental Health and Physical Activity

potted plants

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Parents everywhere are faced with the daily struggle of trying in vain to get their child to eat healthy foods. You watch as the broccoli gets pushed around the plate for an hour before finally giving in. And what about staying active and stress free? You are positive all those video games are literally melting their brain. The good news is that there is an activity you can do with your children to improve their mental health and keep them active - gardening, the health gold mine.

Lower the Stress

As adults, we are often quick to assume that children couldn't possibly have anything to stress about. Wrong! Children feel pressure to make good grades, keep up with homework, make friends, and make time for extracurricular activities and fun. Unbeknownst to you, it is possible that your child is feeding off of your own stress. Perhaps they heard you talking about issues at work or arguing with a family member. The good news is there is a simple solution to your child's stress - dirt.

As a parent, you have come to realize that your child is a magnet for dirt, but research has shown that a little dirt actually doesn't hurt. The soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, may be able to alleviate symptoms of depression. In the study, lung cancer patients injected with M. vaccae reported a better quality of life and less pain. Researchers determined that the bacterium stimulates the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. Furthermore, the results of research thus far suggest that inhaling and ingesting M. vaccae could put you in a good mood. What does this mean for your child? As they dig through the garden, and eventually eat the fruits of their labor, they'll get a happy boost.

Boost Their Brain

Gardening with your child is a fun bonding activity, but it is a great learning experience too. Gardening involves a variety of activities such as the garden design, choosing what to plant, maintenance, watering, and harvesting. It sparks questions such as: Why do plants need sun? How can a plant "drink" water? Can plants get sunburned? Use it as a teaching experience as well as an opportunity to work on school skills such as counting and measuring plant growth each week. You can add in a little reading comprehension too with books about plants and gardening. While your child may not immediately fall in love with vegetables, you can breathe a little sigh of relief from the fact that they are five times more likely to eat what they've grown.

If you still aren't convinced of gardening's brain boosting power, consider the fact that one study found that students who participated in gardening activities scored higher on science achievement tests. At an elementary school in Texas, 12 to 15 percent more children passed standardized tests three years after the school started a community garden. In addition to the academic benefits, children learn important life skills too such as responsibility, patience, socialization, and problem solving.

Encourage Movement

How many times have you found yourself asking your child to please put down the electronics and get some exercise? Gardening is a great way to get your child moving through activities such as carrying a heavy watering can, digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, or pushing a wheelbarrow, improving strength and overall fitness. In addition, these types of activities, referred to as heavy work, have been shown to keep kids calm and focused.

Heavy work is a treatment method often used for children with sensory processing disorders, but it can be beneficial to any child. Children need to be able to calm and self-regulate their bodies. Heavy work, which is any activity in which you put pressure on your muscles and joints, provides your body with the proprioceptive input to self-regulate. This is similar to the way exercising often helps you feel less stressed and better able to tackle life's big issues. Heavy work helps your child to re-center and refocus their body and energy into healthy and appropriate outlets.

Gardening is not only a great bonding opportunity for you and your child, but also an excellent way to help them relax, learn new skills, improve academic performance, and get active. And while there some important gardening dos and don'ts to keep in mind, it's truly a great hobby for old and young alike. What are you waiting for? Go break out the shovel and get started!