BLOG - The power of gardening on the mental health of children
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year the theme is nature.
Gardener Cath Baynton, who runs the gardening element of our food education programmes, has observed first-hand what a difference tending to a garden can make to children.
Last week I was planting vegetable seeds at a primary school in Bermondsey with a group of year 3 pupils. It was hectic: another group of children were using the playground nearby for a PE lesson, while a gardener on a sit and ride mower was cutting the grass only metres away, but one of the pupils looked up and said, 'Planting seeds is really peaceful'.
It reminded me that children in London are used to living in a busy, noisy city, but can find peace performing a simple task like seed sowing.
Many children in cities have no access to outside space and school gardens provide a vital opportunity to learn and experience the natural world. Some have never experienced digging or handling soil and plants, and this can be a completely surprising and absorbing activity. Many times, I've heard young people say, 'Gardening is cool' which probably surprised them.
Gardening permits children to get dirty!
Children will often show me their hands after they have been working and I ask them if they have ever been that dirty before - 'No' they reply and look delighted about it!
Following one of our 'bee friendly' planting sessions, one year 9 pupil wrote: 'I enjoyed it because we got to get our hands dirty with work. I didn't like how little time we had. I wanted to stay for more time'.
All the pupils wrote similar feedback about the session, but what surprised and impressed me was that nobody mentioned how hard it had rained at the beginning of the session and how soaked we all got! Proof to me that even when it rains it feels good to be outside in nature.
Gardening is a natural de-stressor
Working in the garden provides children with opportunities to work together and help each other, building friendships and raising self-esteem. Their curiosity is stimulated, they ask questions and instinctively solve problems. They feel ownership of the space they are cultivating and pride in their work.
There are so many jobs to do in the garden that there is something for everyone. I often hear children say, 'I'm actually pretty good at this'.
Often when we are gardening, we are absorbed in the task and lose all sense of time. We are focused on what we are doing at that moment and can forget about other stress going on in our lives.
As one student wrote in her feedback after a session: 'When I get into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such happiness and health that I discover that I have been depriving myself all the time by letting stress do it for me what I should have done with my own hands.'
Gardening is a great metaphor for life
Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming and we're not sure where to begin, but if we choose one area and start there it can give a real sense of achievement and a stepping stone to the next challenge.
Gardening also helps to build resilience. Things do not always work out. Some seeds might not germinate as we hoped, as it may be too hot or too dry, and we quickly realise that we don't control the weather. Sometimes slugs and snails feast on our precious veg, but we learn to deal with the disappointment and try again.
And can there be anything more joyful or rewarding than pulling a carrot from the ground or observing the growth of a huge, brightly coloured pumpkin?
In other news ...
Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark is one of the first schools to participate in our Healthy Zones project.
It is Healthy Eating Week, and this year our successful Young Marketeers programme, which teaches children about the origins of good food, is progressing well across the country.