Can Gardening Help My Anxious Child?

Yes, it can. Here are four reasons why and what you need to get them started ASAP. 

Gardening can help our anxious children by providing; An increase in their serotonin, access to vital nutrition, practical skills/knowledge and a sense of awe.

Gardening has gone from hobby to urgent need for our kids.

In the face of our current, global mental health crisis, connecting our children with the healing effects of gardening has never been so critically important.

Jump to: How To Get Started and the Resource List.

Four Ways Gardening Reduces Anxiety in our Kids.

1. Gardening Changes Our Physiology. 

Gardening literally increases Serotonin levels. 

According to an article written by Robyn Francis, Principal of Permaculture College Australia, touching soil and the specific bacteria (Mycobacterium vaccae) found within it, signals the brain to release serotonin. 

Once the soil is in contact with our skin, our own natural antidepressant, “happy chemical”, floods our bodies and instantly elevates our mood. 

Serotonin increases our immune function and lowers depression and anxiety.

Parents need not fear this kid-friendly bacteria and the remarkable relationship it has with our brains.

In fact, some parents are replacing the sand in sandboxes with organic dirt. 

Not only is dirt less messy, it is less likely to be ingested or dumped on someone’s head AND it provides serotonin and immune enhancement!

I’ve witnessed the calming effects of digging in dirt in my own children and myself. Every winter I eagerly await the opening of garden centres, getting my supplies and getting busy in the garden.

I can smell the soil and plants just thinking about it. 

It’s not a hobby to me. It’s something I NEED to do. An instinctual calling for increased serotonin that we all have and should listen to.

No one ever feels worse after getting their hands dirty and bringing plant life to their homes. Would you not agree?

“Ironically, in the face of our hyper-hygienic, germicidal, protective clothing, obsessive health-and-safety society, there’s been a lot of interesting research emerging in recent years regarding how good dirt is for us, and dirt-deficiency in childhood is implicated in contributing to quite a spectrum of illnesses including allergies, asthma and mental disorders.”

Robyn Francis, Principal of Permaculture College Australia

We are learning more about our interaction with plants and the amazing power they have to suppress activity in the autonomic nervous system, the system that governs our “fight or flight” response to stress.

 A 2015 study by Min-sun Lee et al. focused on the effects of indoor plants on the psychological and physiological stress of young adults.

The experiment involved subjects performing two tasks. One mental in nature done on a computer, the other, physically transplanting an indoor plant.

Study on the effects of indoor plants on the psychological and physiological stress of young adults.

The subjects’ heart rate and blood pressure were recorded before and after the 15 minutes it took to complete each task. 

The take-away? Diastolic blood pressure was significantly lower after the transplanting task.

The researchers concluded that;

“Our results suggest that active interaction with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress compared with mental work. This is accomplished through suppression of sympathetic nervous system activity and diastolic blood pressure and promotion of comfortable, soothed, and natural feelings.”

2. Gardening Provides Access to Chemical-Free, Anti-Inflammatory Food.

Inflammation causes disease in all our bodily systems and the brain is no exception. 

An inflamed brain is an anxious and depressed brain.

Anti-inflammatory foods play a huge role in reducing anxiety, and many of them fall under the category of produce that can be grown at home.

Uma Naidoo, MD, discusses “Psycho-Nutrition”, anxiety and food in this Harvard Medical School article.

She mentions the shocking fact that about 95% of our serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut, proving a direct link between nutrition and our brain activity and recommends including the following foods for an anti-anxiety diet:

  • Foods high in magnesium: leafy greens (spinach, Swiss chard etc), legumes, nuts seeds and whole grains.
  • Foods high in zinc: oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks. 
  • Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids: fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon.
  • Probiotic-rich foods: pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir.
  • Foods high in B vitamins: avocado and almonds.

She also mentions that anxiety is “thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state” and recommends including foods high in antioxidants. 

  • Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney
  • Fruits: apples, prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
  • Berries: blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Nuts: walnuts, pecans
  • Vegetables: artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
  • Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger.

“These “feel good” foods spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety.” 

Dr. Uma Naidoo

Providing chemical-free, fresh produce can be expensive depending on one’s circumstances. Gardening can help offset the cost of this investment in their nutrition.

Depending on the scale and nature of the gardening project, your child may or may not have enough produce to consume on a regular basis. 

If your kids have access to a yard full of produce and an entire season to eat it, great. If they have just a few pots of lettuce, that’s great too.

The point is to get them on the right foods as much as possible and excited about eating something that they grew.

Start simple.

Leafy greens are very easy to grow, even in limited space and/or inside. Tomatoes are easy too and even strawberries do well in containers.

Just procuring a handful of greens or tomatoes from a single plant will have a calming effect and can start your child on the road to food literacy, larger gardens and minimal anxiety! 

3. Gardening Means Skill Development and Knowledge Acquisition.

Getting your child involved in gardening on a regular basis will give them confidence as they learn to master new skills and acquire important knowledge.

Knowing how to plant, cultivate, harvest and prepare food are skills that will never be irrelevant or obsolete. We had better hope not anyway.

These skills can be used in so many ways. From keeping a small, year-round herb garden into adulthood to choosing the profession of expert horticulturist, gardening can only add value to their lives.

Another added bonus – these skills are physical in nature providing exercise, enhanced hand-eye coordination and if outdoors, exposure to vitamin D.

Living in these uncertain times, there are lots of questions around things like supply chain issues and the rising cost of food. 

Knowing that they can grow their own food can bring our kids much needed reassurance. 

Gardening skills and knowledge help our kids feel that they can adapt to unexpected situations and ease their anxiety over the future with a sense of some control.

4. Plants Create a Sense of Awe.

In this beautiful article by Tanya J. Peterson, the relationship between anxiety and awe is explained as one of opposites.

She describes Anxiety involving “fear, tension and a narrow focus” while Awe involves “transcendence, amazement and expansiveness”. 

More awe equals less anxiety. Being on opposite ends of the spectrum, they cancel eachother out.

Peterson says there are no hard and fast rules to creating awe and that “anything that inspires wonder, enjoyment and letting go of ruminations” will work and that we have to intentionally create chances to experience awe.

Enter gardening.

Can plants instill this much needed sense of awe and something bigger in our kids? Indeed it can.

When asked why nature (plants) have such a significant impact on our health and well being, Dr. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says AWE is the answer.

“When you experience awe, you get out of your own head and into the greater world, universe, around you. And when that happens, anxiety lessens.”

Tanya J. Peterson

How to Get Your Child Started With Gardening.

Getting your kids into gardening, no matter the scale of the endeavor, is a win-win situation. 

This is real, concrete help for our kids. 

It’s easy, affordable, effective and can compliment any anxiety treatment that may already be in place. 

It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you have. Gardening in some form or another, is always an option. 

Even if you live in an apartment without a balcony – a few containers, some seeds, soil, window light and water are all you need. 

If some form of gardening is an absolute impossibility for you, please consider sending your child to a gardening program.

For the complete newbie, kits like this one can be the perfect starting point. 

Or, you can always go to a garden centre, Walmart or a dollar store for containers, dirt and seeds and make your own starter kit too.

For those that have a yard and/or existing garden, just get your kids more involved and perhaps expand what you have already. 

Let them in on the planning process and choose plants that might be of particular benefit to them.

The most important thing is that our anxious children find relief and develop a relationship with plants that will serve them well into the future.

List of Resources:

I’ve done the research and here is a list of the best of the best. 

Enjoy and all the best to you and your family on this healing journey.

Free Seed Initiative

Starting Seeds on a Budget

Best Starter Growing Kit

Simple Elevated Garden Bed

Best Website for Your Gardening Questions

Examples of Gardening Programs for Children

Example of In-School Programs

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