Dirty hands, full hearts—How gardening helps kids grow

Getting kids and communities involved in gardening and landscaping has a powerful impact on well-being
Kids get dirty in the Mordecai Children's Garden. (Photo: Scott Dressel-Martin for Denver Botanic Gardens)

For Melissa Gula, showing a child how to hold a wiggly worm or offering a bite of a tart tomato fresh from the garden are some of the best parts of her job as manager of family and children’s programs at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Studies show children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they participate in hands-on community gardening. Gula sees it firsthand as she interacts with children, encouraging them to dig in the dirt and try vegetables they haven’t eaten before.

“A lot of times parents will say they’re not going to eat it, but when kids see a tomato pulled from the plant and their friends are eating it, they’re more than likely to give it a try,” she said. “And when we hunt for worms in the garden, some kids think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever experienced.”

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It’s all about giving children the opportunity to be comfortable around nature, not always easy in urban Denver.

Eight years ago, the Denver Botanic Gardens opened the Mordecai Children’s Garden, a three-acre area that allows families to experience six different Colorado ecosystems, including alpine and subalpine forest, montane forest and shrubland, plains and grasslands, and riparian with its Pipsqueak Pond. The garden is located between the busy Josephine and York streets in Denver.

“A lot of times when you’re in the gardens, you forget you’re in the middle of two heavily-populated roadways because you’re surrounded by all these natural elements,” she said.

Attendance tops 12,140 for families and youth who participate in Denver Botanic Gardens programs each year. The Gardens also hosts summer camps and takes its programs to schools, serving more than 31,000 children annually in 409 different schools.

Gula said program participants range in age from babies and toddlers, elementary and middle-school children through high school. Children can engage in natural play in the Children’s Garden, or plant and harvest the vegetable garden also located on the grounds.

“One thing parents appreciate is the open-endedness of nature play. It allows kids to explore and make their own experiences,” Gula said. “One of our goals is to provide a landscape and environment that provides different experiences for kids each time they come, based on the seasons.”

These opportunities help children disconnect from the fast-paced digital world and embrace the simple fun of searching for bugs or burying their hands in dirt from the garden.

“Kids’ natural curiosity pulls them off the path to exploration and discovery,” she said. “And we give them the freedom to get dirty.”

Food is power for families

At Clayton Early Learning School, preschool children have hands-on educational sessions in the school’s 20 gardens of fresh produce that feed them, their families and others in their Denver Park Hill neighborhood community.

“I say ‘seed the stomach,’ which means we involve our children in the gardens where their food comes from,” said Kristen Wilford-Adams, Clayton’s nutrition, health and wellness specialist. “Food just doesn’t come in packages from the grocery store—you can grow your own food. And growing your own food is power, a sense of accomplishment and independence.”

Many of the preschool children at Clayton experience food insecurity. Nearly half of the 200 children who attend are from single-parent families and 90% live below federal poverty standards. The school is in a food desert, meaning that there’s no easy access to a grocery store or fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Some of our families really rely on our gardens and food bank on campus,” she said.

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