Get your kid excited about gardening and they’ll reap a bounty of benefits. Studies have time and time again linked garden-based education to healthier eating habits that last, not to mention higher math and science scores, better interpersonal skills, higher morale, and renewed passion for learning in general. Oh, and America is fatter than ever, so a gardening kid is doing their part to reverse that lamentable trend.
“A lot of kids don’t understand where any of their food comes from, which is why they often have no problem eating at McDonalds,” says Kimbal Musk, co-founder of The Kitchen Community. Like his brother Elon, Kimbal is a visionary hellbent on making the world a better place. His nonprofit has given over 240 schools across the country “learning gardens” — above-ground garden boxes where schoolchildren participate in every part of the process from pouring the soil to eating the fruits and vegetables they grow, and the results are astounding. “By the time these kids are in sixth grade, we can double their intake of fruits and vegetables,” Musk says.
Follow his advice, and you won’t have to worry about that, because your kids will be manning a stand at the local farmer’s market long before sixth grade. Musk says you can get them started as young as 2.
Plant the Garden in the Right Place
The Kitchen Community builds elevated garden boxes because it puts the plants at eye level, but if you’d rather not fool with that much construction material, Musk says don’t bother: “A normal, ground-level garden in your backyard can be just as effective.” What matters most is that you put that garden in a highly visible place.
The goal of all this is to familiarize kids with the magical fruition of healthy food, but that only works if they witness the progress regularly. “It needs to be somewhere where they’ll walk by and interact with it every day,” he says. “It needs to feel real to them.” It also needs access to sunlight and water, because, you know, that’s how stuff grows.
Involve Them From the Beginning
Don’t build a garden for your kid but with them so that they’ll gain a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership that grows with the plants. Even if their contribution isn’t the slightest bit helpful in a practical sense, involvement makes them care. Musk has been known to actually move soil piles further away from his learning gardens in the early stages to ensure that every kid in a given class can participate in the hauling of dirt. “It’s incredibly important for the kids to participate so they’ll feel a connection with the garden and everything it produces,” he says.
Encourage your kid to select which seeds to plant, explain that Venus Flytraps aren’t edible and therefore not an option, and then encourage them to choose again. If they keep picking things like cactuses and kudzu, Musk says just go with carrots and cherry tomatoes.
Turn the Garden Into a Game
“One way to get them excited is to let them select the ingredients for dinner,” he says. They should also be in charge of gathering those ingredients for you to cook. Do this on a regular basis and they’ll learn how each plant looks and tastes, as well as what “ripe” looks and feels like. By the time dinner is served, your kid will have thought intensely about the quality of food going in their mouth. Mission accomplished.
If you want to take things up a notch, The Kitchen Community offers detailed gardening instructions and free lesson plans in Science, Technology, Art, and Mathematics for kids from pre-K to twelfth grade. The teachings range from setting up a garden scavenger hunt, which Musk recommends as a great way to teach plant name recognition, to delving into the chemistry behind fertilizers and pesticides.
The most important thing a garden can give your child is a simple question that hangs over their every meal for life: “Where did this food come from?” To jumpstart that lesson, take one last pro tip from a game Musk plays with his 3 kids: “If they can’t spell it, they can’t eat it.” Snack ingredients tend to include especially ridiculous words. If your kid wants a tomato, they have to spell “tomato.” If they want Doritos, it’s “maltodextrin” or “disodium guanylate.” They’ll either eat healthy or dominate the spelling bee.
For more advice on fun stuff to do with your kids, from ridiculously overqualified experts, check out the rest of our 940 Saturdays.