I LEARNED a lot about my little girl in the process of tending a single raised bed. First of all, the textures of handfuls of earth are a huge draw. Fighting a four-year-old’s impulse to lather up with muck just devastates their interest. The joy of a visible sprout? Those whoops of excitement and spontaneous pagan dance at our first successes? Unforgettable.
Still, having worked diligently side by side for weeks tending and protecting two wigwams of peas, my little Peter Rabbit proved not to be beyond a spontaneous harvest. I found a tiny poacher sitting content on a warm sleeper in the early morning light, the ground at her elfish feet littered with ravaged pods.
Ten years later, Faelen still grows herbs and a few strawberries. When I’m away, she would never let a living thing die for want of a drop of water. Our experiences added a leaf or two to her blossoming character.
A recent household survey by Behaviour and Attitudes Ireland, has demonstrated that 47% of those questioned had grown some food at home over 2016/17, and that 99% of those surveyed were convinced that the school growing projects were highly beneficial.
Attention has been drawn worldwide to what researchers call the ‘green deficit’ and a strong correlation between children’s health and happiness and their relationship to the natural world. This includes developing their microbial defences (or microbiome). Food researchers at Ohio State University and Cornell University in New York found that children are five times more likely to eat salad when they have grown it themselves.
A gardening project can foster an interest in science, improve socialising and interpersonal skills, and can quietly teach multiple skills surrounding perseverance, problems solving and individual responsibility. Eating food that you have put so much into — a whole new world for youngsters used to fending off, bland supermarket greens.
GIY (Grow It Yourself) is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Waterford. Through a range of initiatives online and on the ground including Sow & Grow (primary schools), they help everyday people to grow some of their own food at home, at work, at school and in the community. Flourishing throughout Ireland and Britain, GIY currently supports more than 500,000 individuals and 8,000 community gardening projects.
Grow Cook Eat (RTÉ 1) is the GIYs first TV series presented by founder Michael Kelly and their Head of Community Development, Karen O’Donoghue. The GIY summer camps for young dedicated food growers based at their new Grow HQ in Ardkeen are a sellout. Michael Kelly is an enthusiast and visionary, and could, I suspect, tempt the most jaded, phone-addicted child into his green wonderland.
“Time and again in our schools’ programmes, we see kids who are fundamentally disconnected from real food and the reality of where their food comes from,” he says.
“I think that disconnection is part of the reason we have such challenges with the health of our children at a societal level.
“Getting them involved in growing and cooking food is a brilliant way to restore that connection. In GIY we call this ‘food empathy’— it’s a better understanding and connection with food that arises from growing and cooking some of it yourself.
Research tells us that kids who grow some of their food have better diets overall and are more willing to try new foods. So it’s a really great way for parents to get their kids properly interested in food.
So, what part do parents play in bring children back to Mother Earth? “Increasingly we see parents of primary school aged children who want to make sure their children know where their food comes from,” he says. “And are given the opportunity to grow some food, cook it and of course eat really nutritious delicious home-grown grub.
“We throw in a bit of yoga or mindfulness each day for good measure and of course, the whole week is brilliant fun. The kids love it and the parents are happy knowing their kids are getting outside, getting their hands dirty and eating lots of good, healthy food.”
Back at home, with a screen-addicted uncertain child — where do we start getting them down and dirty?
“Kids are naturally curious, so it’s really just about peaking that interest. At our kids’ courses and camps, we follow the journey from growing to cooking and then to eating, often in the same day. For example, they might harvest some beetroot in the garden, take it down to the kitchen and cook up a delicious beetroot brownie or make some beetroot ice-cream.
“Having been involved in the process, they are more likely to try the food, even what could be considered a slightly more challenging veg’ like beetroot. I find that with my own kids at home, that they are more likely to try foods they’ve been involved in growing. Thankfully, with food growing there are lots of aspects that interest kids — encouraging them to get their hands dirty, mess around with watering cans and the like and they’re happy out.”
Alright, but moans, groans, competing entertainments — what can we do as parents if their sprouting fascination wilts?
Giving them ownership over a raised bed or some containers is a great way to encourage them to stay interested.
“Let them follow their creative instincts. Vegetables that grow relatively quickly are a good plan — cress can be eaten within a week or so of sowing. Tall-growing plants like runner beans and sunflowers are brilliant — get them to measure progress as they grow.
“Don’t stress too much if they lose interest, they might come back to it. I find at home that forcing the kids into it is not a good plan. They’ll jump back in to get involved when they’re ready. You want it to be fun rather than a chore.”