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Gardening with kids: Tips and advice for starting an active and healthy habit

Tuesday - 5/21/2013, 7:52am  ET

Introducing gardening, and the healthy foods that result from gardening, gives youth a better chance of become healthy eaters later in life. (Thinkstock)
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Hoai-Tran Bui, special to

WASHINGTON - For adults, gardening can be one of the most rewarding activities of summer. However, getting kids to enjoy the same activity may present challenges for some parents and caregivers.

With rising levels of childhood obesity, and more youth engaging in increased screen time, sedentary lifestyles in children and adolescents is concerning. But gardening may offer the perfect middle ground between a fun, outdoor activity and a pastime that offers exercise and promotes healthy habits.

"We see gardening as being a holistic activity for youth," says Julie Parker- Dickerson, the director of youth education programs at the National Gardening Association. "You can garden in a very small space, you can do it in an urban space, you can do it in containers."

Gardening with Kids, a subset of the National Gardening Association, emphasizes the role of gardening in the formative years of children. The organization uses gardening to teach students about science and nature, and it strengthens their connection with nature, in general.

"Anyone around kids can see the difference it makes for them to have time outside in fresh air," says Sarah Pounders, education specialist at the NGA. "It is relaxing, provides exercise (and) stimulates their senses and minds without being over-stimulating."

Melinda Kelley, program manager at We Can! ® from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, agrees that introducing gardening, and the healthy foods that result from gardening, gives youth a better chance of become healthy eaters later in life. We Can! stands for Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition. It's a childhood obesity prevention program that focuses on improving healthy eating choices, increasing physical activity and decreasing screen time, which includes time spent on computers, games and television.

"It's just a great way to bring people together," Kelley says about gardening with children. "When you take kids to a farm, or take kids to a garden or take them even to your backyard, you're getting them away from the TV and getting them up off the couch and getting them to do something active."

For parents who want to find a unique way to spend time with their kids, and for those who just want to get their kids outside this summer, try these tips for gardening with kids.

Don't assume kids need "kid-friendly" gardening.

WTOP's Garden Editor Mike McGrath says the smartest thing adults can do is introduce children to "real gardening." He says trends and gimmicks -- such as upside down tomato planters or gardening in straw bales -- may seem fun and creative, but they are just trends that may not even be safe to have around small children.

"I think it's degrading to pretend that children don't have intelligence, that they can't be part of the real world, that they can't learn to do something correctly," McGrath says. "If you make them some sort of bizarre playground of plants that has nothing to do with real gardening, you may amuse them for about 20 minutes, then they're going to get bored and they won't have learned anything about real gardening."

Instead, Pounders recommends starting kids off with raised beds or container gardens, since they are much easier to plant and maintain.

Ask your kids what they want to do or plant.

Take your kids to the store and let them help pick out the seeds. Then, engage them in planting the seeds and watering the plants. Pounders says to choose seedlings for immediate gratification and seeds for delayed gratification.

Kelley says kids are more likely to be engaged in gardening if you frame it around some of their interests.

"Maybe some foods they'd like to try, (and) maybe just some plants they would like to see what they'd look like when they grow," Kelley suggests.

Encourage them to eat the food they grow.

McGrath recommends growing small fruits and vegetables for children to munch on, such as raspberries, sugar snap peas or carrots.

"It's really that first spring when the first peas come in, and the first little fruits come in, that's when you say, ‘Hey do you want something really sweet, do you want to taste something really delicious?' And it's not in the fridge, it's not in a box, it's not in a store, it's growing in our backyard," McGrath says. "And you take them out, and once they have their first bite, they're hooked. And there's a kid that suddenly, is always going to have at least an acceptance of fresh food and an understanding of fresh food."

Pounders and Kelley agree that growing your own vegetables is the perfect way to introduce children to healthy, varied foods.

"The more you expose kids to healthy foods, I think you're increasing the likelihood that they're going to be receptive to those foods later," Kelley says. "Just introducing foods to kids numerous times can help them overcome the picky eater issue that a lot of parents deal with."

"Gardening is an activity that parents and kids can share while outdoors," Pounders says. "It teaches them a lifelong skill -- it can be a hobby or more fundamentally, it gives them the knowledge to be able to obtain their own food."

Don't expect to get a lot accomplished.

Children are naturally prone to distraction. Rather than tasking them with pulling weeds or carting rocks, encourage them to do something creative.

"Let them enjoy what they are doing," Pounders says. "They may get as much joy just digging in the soil as actually planting something."

And while gardening is a slow process that many impatient children will find frustrating, McGrath insists that it is all worth it.

"There's no plant you put in the ground that you get to eat the next day," McGrath says. "But there's no kid on the planet that doesn't like fresh raspberries and blueberries and strawberries. And to pick them from your own yard, all of a sudden their parents are much more capable beings, they're much more important, they're much more interesting than any parent that takes them to the Whole Foods, or takes them to the CSA to pick up or takes them to the farmers market on Saturday or Sunday."

Make it a family outing.

If you don't have room in your home for a garden, try going to a community garden. Churches, schools and neighborhoods often have gardens on their grounds that are open to the public.

"A lot of communities have a little community gardens that you can sign up for and have a little garden plot, and that's a really great way for some people to have access to a spot to garden," Kelley says.

Another option is to go out to a farm or an orchard to pick vegetables or fruits. There are plenty of orchards in Virginia and Maryland that let visitors pick strawberries in the summer, or apples and pumpkins in the fall.

"Ask the kids what they would like to pick, find out if this is a good time to look and see what's available in your community in terms of gardens and farms to visit," Kelley says.

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