Kids who spend more time near green space during childhood have more white and gray matter in parts of their brain, leading to higher scores on cognitive tests. These are the findings from a new study out of the University of California – Los Angeles that confirms what we at KidsGardening have known for years: the earlier and more often children are exposed to nature, the happier, healthier, and brighter they become. They also have a closer connection to and more respect for the environment.
I recently read David Sobel’s book, Beyond Ecophobia, Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, and it got me thinking a lot about the experiences I had in nature as a child and how they influenced the adult I’ve become. Sobel makes the case that children must develop a bond with the natural world through empathy and exploration before they are taught abstract - and often devastating - environmental concepts.
“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” –David Sobel
Growing up on a five acre horse farm in rural New Hampshire, I was outside nearly every day exploring, learning to care for animals, and connecting with nature on a level I would not comprehend or value until much later in life.
Many of my fondest memories took place in this small wooded area across the street from my childhood home. I know now that my time spent playing here and on that horse farm as a kid cultivated a connection to the natural world that laid the foundation for environmental activism. When I watched An Inconvenient Truth at age sixteen and learned about climate change, my mind, body, and spirit were primed to fight for the earth I had grown to love. I doubt my reaction to that documentary – which set the stage for my college education, career, and the rest of my life – would have been as strong had I not spent my childhood developing a bond with the natural world.
I am fortunate to have grown up with nature right outside my back door, but many children simply don’t have access to a farm or forest behind their house, nor to any green space at all.
That’s where gardens come in!
School and youth gardens can take many forms and are not just accessible to rural communities. In fact, eighty-one percent of children served through KidsGardening’s programs are in urban or suburban areas. Youth gardens can take the form of raised beds on top of pavement, gardens on the roof of a school, a living wall in a schoolyard, or plants under a grow light inside the classroom. They are an incredibly effective tool to connect all children, regardless of setting, socioeconomic status, physical ability, or learning differences to the natural world – laying the foundation for the environmental stewards on which the future of our planet depends.