Want Health and Self-Esteem? Garden

Good news for gardeners – you’re probably less depressed, have healthier self esteem, and better overall health than non-gardening pals. And even better news – the garden doesn’t have to be on your  personal property! British researchers looked at the health and mood of 136 allotment gardeners and compared that information to that of about 133 same-age peers who were not gardening. An allotment garden is similar to a community garden space here in the United States, where gardeners come together in a shared space to work on their assigned patch of land. Those who gardened not only felt better about themselves, they said they had less fatigue and more overall energy. The research appeared in the Sept 2016 Journal of Public Health (Oxford). (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26515229)

Why does gardening have these effects? The researchers – at least in the abstract – don’t try to explain what they have observed. As a gardener myself (albeit, not a very good one!) I can say that the pure magic of gardening is heartening. The experience of planting a seed and seeing it grow is magical – even when you understand the science behind the process. There is still something that is just fundamentally rewarding about the entire process and you’re living in a pile of charts and calendars intended to guide your seeding and harvesting decisions.

It’s delicious to have a food garden, of course, because you can go one step further and make a meal for yourself and others – and frankly, beans and tomatoes and even humble eggplants are just better when they come out of your own garden. Self esteem can come from both growing and preparing these foods. But flower gardens and gardens that are enjoyed by children, birds, butterflies, and all other beings bring pleasure as well. Sharing the process of preparing, planting, and caring for a garden with my children is also nothing short of magical. (Bemoan the modern tech generation if you like, but know that the photo on my 6 yr old’s tablet screen is of the garden he worked on, as it flourished in early summer.) Maybe it’s all those healthy microbes in the soil that enhance the magic.

Finally, community gardening also can be rewarding because of the community aspect. We in the health community know that social connections make a difference to people’s health and emotional well-being.  The impact is even better if the shared connections are positive, and focused on a goal that everyone involved values. So, if you’re working in your own garden at home – whether it’s raised bed, container, or other types of gardening – it’s probably worthwhile to join a gardening club or other group so you can reap the benefits of socializing with other gardeners.

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Time Outside Builds Kids’ Social Skills

Time outside could be what your child needs to get along better with his or her peers, according to the results of Canadian research published in the Sept 21, 2016 issue of Health Reports. The researchers were focusing mostly on activity levels and outside time. Not surprisingly, they found that the more time young people spend outside, the more active they are, and the less likely they are to be sitting at home. But, in addition to being more active, outside time appears to improve social health. Every additional hour of outside time for children correlates with better peer relationships and lower likelihood of overall difficulties. Here’s the link, if you want to dig deeper: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2016009/article/14652-eng.pdf

The researchers emphasize that just 15 minutes of outdoors time after school can greatly improve peer relationships. Although they do not explain why that is within this study, they draw on previous research showing that free play outside helps children cooperate better, self-regulate more effectively, and engage in problem-solving better, both alone and with others. They add that simply being physically active more could improve mental and emotional health.

Now, I am just going to be frank,  this doesn’t surprise me. I am what you might most kindly call an outdoorsy mom. This, for me, is a matter of sanity (mine!). Children should be outside, in my opinion, because that is the best place for them to run, scream, and do the things they do, which closely resembles what monkeys and young cubs do when left on their own.

Of course, it’s helpful to have some advanced planning. I always bring water and snacks. I always have a change of clothes and shoes for each child, and a towel. I almost always have a bag so we can pick up trash or recyclables (not cigarette butts!) And I don’t particularly care if the kids get dirty – they are washable.

So, why does outside time help? I’m guessing that for one thing, the energy children burn outside is energy that won’t go into fractiousness and arguing (yes, they do still argue outside tho!). I also think that being outside stimulates imaginative play in a different way. Don’t get me wrong, children can be imaginative indoors, of course, and they very often are. But when outside, the children often have a larger space in which to build their imaginary worlds. And, sometimes, as a bonus, we adults get invited in. Priceless.