Can gardening improve children’s mental health? A gardening mum's point of view.

Two hands come together to form a heart with some daisies in the middle

During February’s Children’s Mental Health Week I published some thoughts on how gardening could improve kids mental health. Today, 10th October, is World Mental Health Day and given the last 6-7 months of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, I thought it would be a good time to update some of the content of my original post to reflect new learnings.

Mental health is a topic that touches all of us, directly or indirectly, at some point in our lives but being a mum makes the thought of children suffering from any mental health issues really hard to come to terms with. Childhood should be a happy time of freedom, curiosity and opportunities to test boundaries. However, looking at the stats (pre-COVID-19), it seemed like this was already no longer the case.

A 2017 report from the Office of National Statistics estimated that one in eight 5 to 19-year olds had been diagnosed with mental health issues (Office of National Statistics 2017, Mental health of children and young people in Great Britain). Emotional disorders were the most prevalent type of disorder experienced by 5 to 19 year olds in 2017.

Fast-forwarding to 2020 and much emphasis has been put on the impact of COVID-19 on both adult’s and children’s mental health. Many parents have struggled with the pressures of work and homeschooling and kids have had to endure months without their friends and wider family (in particular grandparents). The Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) study concluded that over a one-month period in early lockdown there were increases in emotional, behavioural and restlessness/inattention difficulties in primary school aged children. These results might not reflect everyone’s experience but it can give an indication of the potential impact that COVID-19 has had on kids.

As per my original blog post, I could make a lot of assumptions and suggestions about the root cause of these depressing statistics but I am neither a psychologist nor a healthcare professional. Also, existing mental health challenges have been mixed with a number of other factors caused by COVID-19, making this an even more complex issue. However, I am a mum and an observer of children’s behaviour. Compared to my generation (an 80-90s kid), most children today spend a lot less time outdoors that what we did (oh dear, I am starting to sound like my mum…). I genuinely think that the connection to the natural world is something that kids need instinctively and wonder what the impact of less outdoor time has on today’s children. Lockdown tested this concept to its core as parents and carers across the UK poured out into their gardens and outdoor spaces to find some freedom. So even after 6-7 months of COVID-19, my question remains very relevant: can gardening improve the mental health of children in the same way it does for adults? And I would also add, why is gardening  good for children’s mental health?

In terms of a purely observational ‘mummy’ point of view the answer to the first question is “I definitely think so”.

With regards to why gardening is good for children’s mental health, the reasons I put forward in February still stand strong and some of them have become even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Although gardening with children might not always be relaxing and stress free for the adults, I think that children find outdoor spaces relaxing and stress reducing by giving them an opportunity to let off steam and use up energy. During lockdown, the opportunities that kids normally have to do this e.g. school breaks, afterschool sports activities etc. were removed and our outdoor spaces have suddenly become vital for both children’s and parent’s sanity.
  • When a child manages to grow something from seed and maybe even gets to taste the fruit of his/her labour, I am sure that they feel a huge sense of achievement and pride. I will not forget my little daughter’s face when she dug up her first potatoes, she was super proud and spent the following days telling people about the experience. I also believe that gardening gives children more visual and practical ways to learn about subjects such as maths and science. Again this could lead to a boost in confidence in those children that might be struggling with traditional teaching methods. I am sure I am not alone in admitting that I found homeschooling very challenging and the ‘confidence boosting’ techniques used by teachers nationwide were somehow not part of my skill set. Therefore, finding other ways for kids to learn and feel proud of their achievements has been very important.
  • Gardening is not always successful and learning to accept failure and move on a is great way for children to become more resilient. When something doesn’t grow or dies, it is hard (even for grown ups) to make peace with the situation and start again. As adults helping children in their discovery journey we need to support them in not getting demoralised if things don’t go their way. Similarly we also need to learn to allow children to make mistakes and experiment in the garden even if it means that we will not necessarily have the most impressive garden in town.
  • We live in a society where instant gratification is the norm so moving from that to a more slow reward is difficult. Growing plants can teach children patience without removing the excitement of looking forward to seeing a result or reward. Whenever I plant anything with the girls, they often forget about it after a few days so I keep on checking and when something happens I make sure to tell them. The excitement about a seed sprouting is off the scale even when they had not been thinking about that seed since they planted it a few weeks back.
  • Gardening time is often a great time to talk and talking is a very important component of our mental health. When I manage to get my eldest out with me weeding, I try to kneel next to her and we talk a lot about life, school and friends. I find it a great time for sharing but unfortunately it does not last very long as the interest in weeding is limited!

What do you think? It would be great to hear about your experiences of gardening with children both pre and during COVID-19 times and how it has affected their mental wellbeing.


Editor’s note: This post was originally published in Febraury 2020 and had been updated and revamped for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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