Gardening is child's play

Children in the garden: the perfect combination of playing and learning at the same time.
Children in the garden: the perfect combination of playing and learning at the same time. Photo: Karen Hardy

Gardens and children: educate and entertain your little ones.

One of the unique pleasures of parenting is discovering new ways to educate one's children without boring them, or oneself, stupid.

As it happens, one of the best spots for kids to learn is also one of the most ubiquitous: the garden. Gardens are schoolrooms, toys and playmates all in one. And gardens have another bonus: they entertain adults as well, which puts them much higher up on my hierarchy than television shows like Mister Maker.

Take one of my recent experiments in the front yard: making a cairn (a man-made stack of stones) with my four year old daughter, Sophia. It began as a house for a two-inch plastic fairy with a broken wand. Instead of just throwing away fifty dollars for a pink castle-shaped piece of landfill, I liberated some small white stones from our potted pelargoniums.

Sophia and I stacked the pebbles in concentric half-circles, with a furrow between. Then we filled in each furrow with another half-circle. And so on, until Ms. Fairy had a rustic stone domicile fit for entertaining. Sophia was chuffed.

The lesson was not simply one of gravity, friction and aesthetics -- although this was important, as we kept building and rebuilding the precarious cairn. The lesson was also one of what my grandparents' generation called "making do": working creatively with the tools and resources at one's disposal.

This, in turn, requires certain virtues, like patience, focus, and imagination: being able to think beyond one's current situation, and envisage desirable and plausible possibilities.

This is a gardener's outlook more generally - making do.

Our soil, for example, is drier than a Sahara martini. But we can enrich it with worm poo and nitrogen fixing plants (like broad beans), and become accustomed to tougher species, like the pelargonium. It's no coincidence that the pelargonium was a favourite of my grandmother -- for a generation raised during then Depression, it's a perfect plant for "making do".

Another lesson from the garden is sympathy. Sophia can play at this with a doll, but a living plant requires more sensitivity. The signs of a weary plant—yellow spots, wilting leaves, stunted growth—do not simply demand action, they also excite feelings of pity or care.

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"If we see a leaf withered or shrunk or worm-eaten, we say it is ugly,' wrote John Ruskin Ruskin in Modern Painters, "because it seems to hurt the plant, and conveys to us an idea of pain and disease and failure of life in it." In short, gardening is an opportunity for Sophia to combine aesthetics with morality.

Gardens can also be introductions to risk. By definition, gardens are enclosed or cordoned off - there is always a boundary of some sort, if only a ditch or a line of stones.

Because of this, they are relatively safe. But the 'relatively' is important, because the natural outdoors are not completely sterile. In the dirt, there are spiders and bull-ants. In the trees and flowers there are thorns, rough bark, heights to fall from.

And then there is the climate itself: baking sun, chilling winds, saturating rain. The garden is an opportunity for our kids to take risks climbing the crepe myrtle or digging in the sandy dirt, but all within a secure area.

This is important, because psychological development requires challenges, and the fears that go with them. The point is not to scare children witless, but to allow them to independently confront what's uncomfortable, frightening or simply unexpected; to learn, not only physical skills, but mental ones: mental habits of courage, consistency and caution.

This garden play does not rule out fun with Lego, drawing or reading. And it is not a 'cure all' for every modern moral panic.

But whether it's a backyard, a public park or a potted plant in a courtyard, the garden can offer a unique fusion of entertainment and education.

Damon Young is the author of Philosophy in the Garden: eleven great authors, and the ideas they discovered in parks, yards and pots (MUP, 2012).

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