When I was a small boy, I usually spent any idle time outdoors. When school was out for the summer, the outdoor time doubled or even tripled.
Once out the back door, I had to entertain myself, often for hours at a time. Sometimes that included kicking the ball around the yard or playing with my beagle, Sam. But just as often it included discovering new bugs, trying to catch a frog or building pretend forts in the dirt, knocking them down and building them again.
Oblivious to it at the time, I now know that it was this "fresh air time" that formed the basis of my lifelong curiosity about nature. Decades later I still can't very well change the oil in my car or describe the proposed national health care plan. But I can grow big tasty peaches. I know what healthy soil is and how to sustain it. I even know which insects are beneficial and which are not.
Knowing about peaches, bugs and soil probably isn't a critical life skill in today's world. But 40 years later, I now have a deep understanding of much bigger, more complex things: worldly things like climate change, clean water, food and famine problems and the strains on our natural resources.
For me, and many of those of my generation, the garden served as the window to a much greater body of knowledge.
The bugs in my childhood garden in some way led to my awareness of natural diversity and the need for the preservation of species.
The dirt of my little fort walls silently taught me lessons of soil health and fostered a commitment to preserving the planet.
The strawberries at the edge of the lawn showed me where food came from and have nurtured an awareness of food production and distribution.
These and many other lessons were subtly taught outside the back door of my childhood.
Today, children are not so much fiddling around outdoors like they used to, with bugs and dirt and seeds and sticks. Of course not. Instead, they're fiddling around with iPhones, Nintendo and DirecTV. Many are missing the outdoors and the subtle lessons that the outdoors and the garden might teach.
Gardening with children isn't about learning to weed and water and fertilize. It's about opening their eyes to the natural world. It's not about the seeds planted in a little backyard plot; it's about the planet's vast forests. It isn't about a can of water supplied to a young tomato; it's about environmental pollutants, a lack of safe drinking water, the uncertain supply of water and the limitations of our resources. It's not about a beetle or an earthworm or a spider; it's about polar bears in the Arctic or the last wild tigers in India.
A child's experience in a garden grows into adult points of view. It's very subtle. With time, a hot weather spell in the garden might develop into a perspective on global warming, aphids on a rose bud might teach population dynamics and green leaves could help to understand the issue of greenhouse gases.
These and other lessons are best discovered hands-on, not in a classroom or on the pages of a book. Lessons that children discover through real experiences are much stronger and more long-lasting than those simply taught. As evidence, try "teaching" a child that a flame is hot, how to ride a bicycle or how to swim in a pool. Until the child feels the heat, skins his knee or paddles in the water, these lessons are not much more than idealistic sermons.
Fortunately, in the past couple of years new vegetable gardens are sprouting everywhere — in backyards, on apartment balconies, in window boxes and at schools. Whether it's a single tomato in a pot or an entire plot, this is an opportunity to involve our children in the natural world. Simple things, like having the child help to dig the hole or pushing the dirt back on top of the roots will get things started. In planting, children are indirectly taught the wonders of science and how human intervention can affect the environment, for better or for worse.
Having the children help to water or add fertilizer will further their interest. Watching a seed grow into a plant is just as wondrous as the birth and growth of a child. In time, kids will learn to care for their plants and appreciate and nurture the life within them. Gardening will simulate how life should be treated — with care.
When it's time to pick the first tomato or strawberry or peach, let the child do it; and let them eat it, too. Gardening stimulates all the senses. A healthy plant, that the child helped to nourish and care for, helps to build their self-esteem.
Perhaps more now than ever, it is gardens that offer our children a window to the world. Through that window they may ultimately better understand our planet and the life upon it.
Gardens teach, and the lessons they teach may be more important now than ever before. They're waiting just outside the back door.