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Fall Planting Projects Can Help Connect

Kids & Families With Nature
by Sally Ferguson
August 25, 2013

It’s possible that never before in history have so many been distracted by so much. From the hundreds of channels on cable and satellite TV, to the profusion of Ipods, Blackberries, mobile phones and video games, to the boundless black hole of bits and bytes that is the Internet, the information age has something to attract anyone’s attention.

Some experts say this is a good thing. Video games, they argue, are making our kids smarter and quicker thinkers, with very developed left thumbs. Others insist that our preoccupation with electronic data sources comes at a cost, including youngsters who can rattle off the storylines of all twelve versions of the “Final Fantasy” video game series but cannot identify a robin in their own backyard or explain that frogs start out as tadpoles.

These critics say that we’ve lost touch with the natural world and that many of our kids, who spend their days surfing the net, rather than combing through the woods, suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

Author Richard Louv, who coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods”, feels that nature deprivation, a lack of connection with the sun, sky and seasons, might aggravate many modern problems such as attention deficit disorder.

"Several…studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorder and other maladies,” he writes in the introduction to his book.

Even children who are not ADHD, he says, have a “disconnect” from lack of exposure to nature that would seem unfathomable to previous generations who spent much of childhood playing or working outdoors. He admits that the evidence for many of his arguments is mainly anecdotal. Few major studies have yet been conducted. But he puts the proposition forward and asks parents to draw their own conclusions. Do kids need more nature or not?

Nature Projects and Learning

“My own boys were city kids before we moved from Brooklyn to Vermont two years ago,” says master gardener Sally Ferguson, NFBIC director. “This summer they ventured out into the garden to help me build rock walls. The garter snakes were more nature than they bargained for! But they loved the work of designing and building the walls. It was their project, complete with problem-solving and decision-making. They got in touch with nature in a very personal way, and created something we’re all proud of.”

For family projects, she suggests that parents start with a family meeting where everyone in the family has a say about what their planting or building project should be. Walk around the yard, garden, patio or entry and discuss what might look nice where. Garden catalogues (both paper and online) are great resources, offering pictures of what trees, flowers and bushes will eventually look like. Include the idea of some kid-friendly area such as a bean-climbing tee pee, a real tee pee or even a tree house.

If there are grandparents nearby, invite them to join in the projects. Kids and grandparents will not only enjoy spending time together, the kids will be likely to become that much more involved as they show off for grandma or granddad.

“Just remember, this is about empowering kids, not about winning design awards. Being told what to do is work, not fun,” says Ferguson.

The Internet Can Lead the Call to Nature
The Internet needn’t be demonized. It is in fact a terrific resource for all kinds of gardening information. Sites such as the Backyard Gardener ( ), the gardening section of ( ) and the National Gardening association.  have lots of interesting basic gardening information. NFBIC has a Web site ( ) with lots of flower bulb information, plus a new Web site, , that offers short simple how-to videos on planting flower bulbs. Assigning the young people, masters of the virtual world, to tracking things down on the Web can help keep their interest.

A visit to a local garden retailer, or the gardening section of a mass-market retailer offers a tactile, hands-on experience where bulbs, trees and shrubs can be touched and smelled. “Buy some hyacinth bulbs,” says Ferguson. “Cut one open and you can clearly see the fully-formed baby flower inside just waiting to emerge next spring.”

For the smallest children, digging in the dirt is most of the fun. Older youngsters like to be part of the decision-making process, and when they make genuine decisions, they are much more likely to stay interested, too. "Most people, including youth, get excited about gardening when they get to 'direct traffic' a bit more, so to speak," says Marcia Eames-Sheavly, an expert in horticultural education who serves as educational coordinator for . "Young people who are encouraged to take ownership of a project are more involved, they learn more and retain more -- and they're more likely to want to repeat the experience."

Long-term Benefits
Outdoor projects can be fun projects to bring the family together in the short term, but they can also be the source of long-term family memories. A tree planted this fall can some day be proudly pointed out to the next generation. The same is true of stands of daffodils, which will naturalize and multiply over the years. These fall weekends can become an annual event that enriches the family experience, adds value to your property, and gives pleasure for years to come.

While a weekend of fall planting might not be entirely the prescription that author Louv endorses, it can be a transitional step. In the best of all possible worlds, Louv would encourage walks through the woods and extended visits to national parks, situations where young people can get truly up front and personal with nature. He also says that the backyard is a good place to start, suggesting that at least some of the yard be left a bit wild. Nature is found not only in the ancient forests of Yellowstone or Jasper national parks, but also under a garden stone, just outside the back door.

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