Parenting expert Alyson Schafer believes that young children are more capable than we give them credit for, and she tells us why gardening is an excellent family activity.
Alyson Schafer, B.Sc. MA Counselling, is one of Canada’s most notable parenting experts. She is a family counsellor with a clinical practice in Toronto and has penned 3 best-selling parenting books: Breaking the Good Mom Myth; Honey, I Wrecked the Kids; and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Schafer speaks and teaches internationally. She is the resident parenting expert for many media outlets, such as “The Marilyn Denis Show,” “Global Morning” and CBC Radio.
Schafer says gardening is a great family weekend activity. It combines some of the best aspects of family life. It’s outdoors, it’s fun and it’s all about nature.
“The skill level of gardening is suitable to any kid who can pick up a shovel. We are woefully missing out on recreational play time as families,” says Schafer. “It’s very important for that relationship-building, that bonding [and] building bridges.”
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Dress kids in old clothing and help get them sun-safe before you head out, including wearing hats and applying your best sunscreen. Then it’s all about fun. “Children will pick up on our feelings about an activity,” says Schafer. If we love it, they’ll want to love it, too.
“We do that through example, with our attitude about it,” she explains. “Oh, we love being in the garden; it’s our fun place to be! And if we keep that positive energy flowing, then our kids are curious about what we find interesting and why we find it joyful.”
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There’s a beautiful simplicity to gardening. Plants need fertilizer, water and a bit of tending to. Schafer says this process is unlike so many other things kids encounter in today’s fast-paced, online world.
“There are so many little side conversations and lessons that can come from seeing a seed germinate and needing to look after it just like you need to look after a puppy or a fish,” notes Schafer. “We need to get out and water our plant and snip off the deadheads and see how it’s doing. It requires patience and maintenance, and in this day of instant gratification, it’s nice to see something that needs nurturing.”
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Schafer wants parents to remember the goal is to have fun, not aim for perfection. It’s about enjoying the outdoors together, not trying to win a gardening award.
“We need to let go of expecting our kids to have master skills, and say that the greater value is having the shared experience together rather than having the mentality, ‘I really need my roses to be planted exactly six inches apart,’” states Schafer. “Maybe that means cordoning off part of the garden and that’s the kid’s garden. And it can be as sloppy as they’d like, rather than diminishing the fun part by being too rigid about how we’d like things to go.”
Research by Michigan State University finds children who garden benefit from the exercise, learning plant names and end up more willing to eat something they’ve grown. According to Schafer, kids ought to decide what goes into their garden plot. You should support their decisions, even if you don’t want to eat what they plan to grow.
“Any time you can find the appropriate place to give choice and decision-making to kids, the better,” says Schafer. “If you’re bound on making your cucumbers and tomatoes look a certain way and they’re bound on peas and parsley, rather than saying, ‘No, Mom doesn’t need parsley this year,’ who cares? Here’s your budget for seeds, you get to pick five things, and there you go.”
Safety should always be foremost in parents’ minds, but Schafer says we sometimes go overboard. Often we deny children the chance to learn to use gardening tools for fear they might get hurt.
“Parents today generally underestimate the competencies of their kids. The only way to become masterful using something sharp is by practising,” explains Schafer. “Yes, it needs to be monitored, it needs to be supervised. We need to spend time talking about where we keep our hands and all those other training skills. But to deny your kids the opportunity to practise just delays their opportunities to have the skills.”
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When you believe your kids can do something, they’ll also believe it. Schafer says kids pick up on whether a parent thinks they’re capable. They’ll form a belief about themselves based on that faith—or lack of faith.
“If you have a kid who’s all enthusiastic and what they see reflected back is, ‘No, you’ll get hurt, no, you’ll do it wrong, no, I don’t think you’re ready’, then it’s easy for them to internalize that big person doesn’t think I manage it, so I guess I can’t,” explains Schafer. “It’s important for parents to always think about what they’re projecting and that they have positive expectations. Not high expectations, but positive expectations that things will work out.”
If your little one is too young to help with gardening, they can still watch all the action from a playard, like this one by Summer Infant. With baby safety in mind, it’s lightweight and portable and can be used indoors or out. It features a removable canopy that helps block up to 80% of harmful UVA and UVB rays.
Starting a garden with your family will make a memory that lasts. Dirt washes off. Rain takes care of some of the watering. And there’s nothing like the taste of fresh food you’ve grown yourself. Schafer says family life needs to be about more than routines, chores and homework.
“We spend a lot of time getting kids to extracurriculars or getting them off to school,” she says. “But our time at home seems to be trickling away, and if we don’t grab that leisure fun time and seize it, it will whittle away.”