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The flower of youth: How gardening can help children grow

By Cathrine Duffy for Newsday
Ever since there have been kids, there have been kids in the dirt. And these days, that's a good thing.

Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association, says that heightened concern about kids getting enough exercise and eating right has brought a new generation of children into the garden.

"Gardening is a great way to take care of both of those issues, says Nardozzi, whose group encourages children's gardening through programs and the Web site, "You're planting things, bending, stretching, moving your body.

Planting fruits and vegetables encourages young children to actually eat them, Nardozzi says. "Most children today don't have a sense of where their food comes from, he said. "It's amazing to see the expression on kids' faces when, for the first time, they eat a pea or a bean that they've actually grown.

Ronnie Doucette, a master gardener and coordinator of the summer program at the Children's Garden at Cornell Cooperative Extension's Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank, says being in a garden allows kids to unplug from their busy daily lives and connect with nature. She describes "harvest parties at the farm, in which children involved in the summer program get to pick the fruits, and vegetables, of their labors and eat them. "We pick tomatoes, chop herbs, she says. "And when they eat it, it comes together for them.

Curricula incorporating gardening are coming into the classroom more and more, Nardozzi says. "It's a way for a science teacher or a math teacher to present a different kind of learning. It's a lot more hands-on.

Caroline Kiang, director of the cooperative extension's community and environmental horticulture, agrees. "We're getting more requests for advice on children's gardens in schools, she says. "There seems to be more interest.

Not just in school:

They're also popular outside the classroom, everywhere from the Long Island Children's Museum in Garden City, where gardening workshops are offered, to the Clark Botanic Garden in Albertson, which features children's organic gardening. Doucette says that, beyond the obvious science kids glean from gardening, there are other benefits. "They learn math skills, weights and measures, Doucette says. "There's a lot of different skills that get incorporated. The students sometimes keep a journal about their gardens, so there are writing skills involved.

Research supports a link between children's gardens and learning.

A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science found that third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests than students who did not. As far back as 1909, influential educator Maria Montessori found that gardening can help children appreciate nature, learn about responsibility, have better relationships and develop patience.

Growing with the plants:

Laurie Farber, executive director and one of the founders of Starflower Experiences, a Long Island-based nonprofit educational organization which will soon be moving into Huntington, has seen students grow along with their seedlings in the after-school program she runs at the Martin Luther King Elementary School in Wyandanch.

The children's garden at the school began three years ago as an outgrowth of a nature program her group runs called Rangers of the Earth. "The fourth graders in the program wanted to start a garden, they wanted to get involved, Farber says. To start the garden, she says, she made a list with the students to find out what plants they were interested in growing. Strawberries have been a big hit at the school, and Farber says the kids take pride in their harvests. "They know if they worked on it, they get to eat it, Farber says. "Our garden is not big enough that we'll ever be able to have a whole meal out of it. Usually, when things ripen, the kids want to eat them right out of the garden. And that's nice too.

Fifth graders in the gardening program say all the work has its rewards. "We get to go out and play in the mud, says Shirley Roberts, 11. "We have to weed and put the wood chips in the walkway. But I tell other kids that it's fun. Read more.

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