Gardens by Brendan: Building children’s gardens pays dividends

As societies have changed, parents are more afraid to let children outdoors. I see little fault in their awareness of obvious security issues; unfortunately, children are missing out on great experiences by spending less time in the great outdoors. Long gone are many fun outdoor games of our childhoods. I have the fondest memories of playing these games until nine or ten o’clock during the long summer evenings when I grew up in Ireland. With progress, it seems, there is always a cost. This cost, in my opinion, is immense.

Advancements in the electronic industry, powerful marketing, TV and merchandising pressure have diverted children’s interests away from simple outdoor games and activities. It’s now more commonplace to see kids glued to a television show, playing Nintendo or having fun with the myriad electronic games on the market. An alarming number of children suffer from obesity, type 2 diabetes, low self-esteem, lack of confidence and social skills in the U.S. and throughout every country in the European Union.

It seems France is making progress in the battle against child obesity, as their levels are the lowest in the E.U, possibly due to their introduction of national health initiatives in 2001. Hope sits on the horizon for other nations, out of reach until this chronic problem is tackled head on with some vigorous action.

A sedentary lifestyle contributes to overweight children, which impacts cardiovascular health and higher cholesterol levels. Children who are obese increase their chances of being obese into adulthood.

According to Robert Kushner, M.D., president of the Obesity Society, “Obesity is the number one, most serious health issue facing the country. It is now the largest single driver or our increasing healthcare costs, and we need to address it now.” The society states that 16 percent of U.S. children are now overweight or obese, a number which has tripled since 1980, and medical costs associated with obesity are $147 billion annually.

Portion sizes have grown impressively. Food additives and artificial ingredients abound. Real ingredients, like sugar, are used less. Families eat less often as a unit than they did in the past, which leaves children free to select what they choose from the fridge or pantry.

It’s also true that we are less forceful than our parents were, and are now unlikely to force-feed spinach, peas, or turnips through a tube to our little ones, restrained in a straightjacket, as I was. Advancements in human rights are great, but I’d much rather broccoli shoved down my neck than type 2 diabetes, even though I’m an advocate for freedom of choice.

Kids need to know where their food comes from. Everything we eat has been either grown, raised or caught from the wild. Children don’t know this. They are more likely to believe that everything they eat comes from the supermarket.

A children’s garden has innumerable benefits. Pottering around in the garden, picking tomatoes, pulling weeds, sweeping paths, watering herbs or simply playing, burns more calories than does a horizontal position on the couch, watching a DVD. More time in the garden also means less time munching on snacks. Children who interact with a garden, like horticulturists, farmers, gardeners and other professions who are in constant contact with the earth, have less incidences of being ill, mostly due to microbes which are either inhaled or ingested from the soil. These microorganisms naturally strengthen the immune system, to which I can personally attest, as it’s been more than 15 years since I’ve visited the doctor.

A garden in which kids interact teaches social skills, teamwork, cooperation, respect for the boundaries of others and respect for personal property. Children who know about nature are more likely to have respect for nature later in life.

It’s not difficult to get children involved in a garden. In fact, they are actually drawn to it like magnets. Nor is it expensive to install a little plot. Imagine your child’s delight as they pick their very first ripe, juicy tomato or mango, and what a positive impact this has on their sense of accomplishment and general confidence. I’m all for plants that are easy to grow, low maintenance and require little fuss and no chemicals.

Consider starting your own small garden for your children, and encourage your school to start a program and children’s garden, too. A clever ploy is to trick them into learning. They’ll be having so much fun they won’t realize they are actually learning vital life skills of social behavior, respect for the environment, nutrition and leadership, all whilst burning great amounts of calories and building real, healthy appetites.

Brendan Moran, the garden artist of Gardens By Brendan, designs gardens, writes and lectures in Southwest Florida, the U.S. and internationally, and lives in Naples. Visit, e-mail brendan@gardensby or call 687-9337.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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