Parents and children gardening together: A relationship connector for at-risk families – Part 1

Families with risk factors can connect by gardening together.

As a Michigan State University Extension educator I work with at-risk families. Some families have children removed from the home by Child Protective Services and, as a result, the parents and I work together on early childhood development. I go to a local Department of Human Services and provide education during the parent and child visitation time. At one location, a small outdoor garden was planted to utilize hands-on family interaction. The garden gives the parents an opportunity to practice what they are learning in their parenting education lessons.

Regularly, I hear the participants say that they feel like a nurturing parent during the garden activity because they are able to see their child from a different viewpoint and work closely with them. The opportunity to garden together has become a relationship connector for families and is a form of horticultural therapy.

The MSU Extension Horticultural Therapy Bulletin E-1847 explains, “The main challenge in horticultural therapy is to motivate and stimulate a person through the use of horticulture related activities and, therefore, to foster, maintain and promote emotional, social and physical health. Horticulture is a valuable medium because it helps people adjust to disabilities, learn new skills, renew confidence, have fun and develop self-esteem, which can lead to a new interest in life and improved mental and physical health.”

Children learn through their senses. In the garden young children have learned to touch the smoothness of the lamb’s ear plant and rub it on their cheek. They also enjoy rubbing their fingers on plants such as mint and lavender. It is exciting to watch them rub the fragrant plants, and then hold their hands up to their noses and to their parent’s nose. These activities are especially beneficial for children with developmental delays as well.

By observing children, adults gain insight. When children are in the garden adults can observe where their child’s interest leads, gain awareness and help their child develop. The garden now provides magnifying glasses for bug hunts because some children showed indication that they were interested in the bugs and frogs present.

Gardening activities give a parent the opportunity to reflect on their interaction with their child. Understanding a child’s capability according to their age, development and cognitive ability is important because having unrealistic expectations can be detrimental for the child.

Children have very different priorities in gardening than adults. Some children would rather pick the dandelions or just dig holes in the garden! Letting a child explore is important for their development. When the adult begins to see things from the child’s perspective and enjoy what they are interested in it can foster the child’s development and help their relationship grow. For more information download and read “What is exploration?

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