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How Gardening with my Children Forever Changed How I Look at How Kids Learn

Quote on benefits of gardening

April is “Gardening with Kids Month” where the industry focuses on encouraging young people to learn more about growing food at home. I wanted to join in on this topic, because I feel it’s so important to teach the next generation about how to grow food. And here’s the best part — you don’t have to know everything about growing food to do it. It’s fun to learn together! If you’re interested in gardening with your children, hopefully our story will inspire you in your journey…

A little bit about my background and knowing a little something about gardening with kids…

As some of you might know, I am a mother to five (5) amazing souls — I am blessed, despite battling PCOS, to have identical twin sons who are now 20 years old, another son who is 16, another son who is 11, and a daughter who is now 8 years old.

When my twins were going into 5th grade, my husband and I felt led to homeschool our three boys (our other two littles had not yet been born.) I left a good paying career in marketing to dive into something totally foreign to me… educating my own children. I felt strongly that I only had my children for a season and I didn’t want to be so distracted with wealth-building that I missed the greatest wealth right in my arms — my children.

Thinking back on that time period, I was very involved in our sons’ education. I volunteered at their school and knew the Principal by name. I knew our sons had a lot of potential, but they were struggling in an environment where they were expected to sit at a desk all… day… l-o-n-g. We hit a breaking point, when I learned one day my son had not been out to recess in over a month, I was not only livid, but I knew that to continue doing the same thing and not getting the results you wanted was not the answer. I remember at the time that I got together with a small group of moms from our church to scrapbook each month and it just so happened that when we met that evening at my house that it coincided with learning my son hadn’t had any time to move his body and play at school for over a month. There was this mama in our group that had homeschooled one of her two children that asked, “Erin, have you considered homeschooling your boys?” Gasp! No! Who does that?

Slowly my friend began to share and open my eyes to the possibilities with homeschooling and she eventually took me to a homeschool expo that totally blew me away. There was so much I could do with my boys as far as teaching them that I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. Here I was, a college educated fully-capable woman who thought only trained “professionals” (aka: government school teachers) were equipped to teach children. How blinded I was by my own biases. It was one day while driving down the road when one of our boys in the back seat of our SUV dropped a swear word that my husband and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “We’re homeschooling.” It was becoming more and more evident that their environment was impacting them more at school that our efforts were at home.

Taking the leap to homeschool felt like I was jumping off a high cliff into a deep pool of water, but looking back over these past decade of living life in this way IT IS THE BEST DECISION I’VE EVER MADE. My children went from doing life in silos, to doing life together. We focused on developing character and growing in relationships just as much as reading, writing and arithmetic. But alas, I digress. Back to how we used gardening to grow our children…

When I began to teach our sons, I saw first-hand what their teachers had complained about — the high distractibility and the difficulty focusing on tasks for any length of time. Even I was a bit surprised at how hard it was for them to get through a subject. Here I was taking out of school because they didn’t fit the mould and at home, I was just making it look like what they came out of doing because that was what was familiar to me. Doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results is akin to insanity, so this SANE mama gave herself permission to step outside the box, society had placed us in and begin to do what was best for my children even if it looked different than what the government school was doing. So I began to deep dive in to figure out how my sons best learned as individuals with the aim to change them from fidgety fifth graders to fantastic focused learners!

At the time, I had joined a homeschool group where one of the moms offered a Classical Education / Charlotte Mason group out of her home where Mom’s met once every couple of weeks on a Saturday to discuss the book, “The Well-Trained Mind” by Susan Wise-Bauer and Jessie Wise. [Get on Amazon]. One of the big take-aways from those wonderful group of mamas with a heart for their children was to simply get children outdoors. And this ended up be the perfect place for me to start with my active young sons.

We encourage our children to explore this amazing world around us and respect the creatures they discover. All five of my children have brought me various critters they have discovered (here a skink) and I take a picture for posterity before they release their catch back into the yard or wild. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Tap your child’s natural curiosity and imagination through exploring the outdoors

So one of the big take-aways this Charlotte Mason / Classical Education type group focused on was our ability as a parent to tap into the natural curiosity of our child / children and the outdoors is the PERFECT place to spark the imagination and wonder of a child. One of the ways we can do this is through nature walks. Prior to going on our nature walk (aka hike), we would equip our children with a task to find one object that was simply interesting to them. They were only to collect one item, nothing more. Of course, the beauty of this was it didn’t have to be limited to a hike — in fact, when I had a newborn in my arms, I would send the boys out into our fenced back yard for a certain length of time with instructions to bring back something that caught their eye as interesting. Sometimes it was an oddly colored or shaped rock. Maybe it was a leaf. Or a bug. Or moss and a uniquely shaped branch. Or some other type of critter like a skink. The goal of the exercise was simple — get them out from behind a desk and get their body moving and their eyes open to the world around them.

Something amazing happened. They were able to come in and sit down and stay focused on their task. I was a believer in this learning method. We had found something that worked!

I would call them in and we would set on the back deck or at the kitchen table and discuss as a family what they had found. This helped their linguistics and built confidence talking about what they thought and gave me insight into what they found to be interesting. One son loved moss (interestingly he ended up having a moss garden as a teen) and another son liked a frog (which totally Next, I had a simple set (like 7 colors) of water colors and brushes with water in solo cups for each child and a small 6 x 6 piece of blank water color paper. The instructions were simple… paint what you see. And the most important part — I did it with them. You might be wondering, Erin, why didn’t you have them use a sketch pad and sketch paper? Well, in using water colors, a child learns how different colors interact with each other. They learn how colors can blend and layer upon one another for a certain affect. They learn how to pay attention to detail — to not only the color hue of whatever object they are examining, but even down to how the light hits that object and creates a shadow. It was okay if it wasn’t perfect. We weren’t aiming for perfection — we were simply observing and trying to communicate visually what we saw and orally what we had observed. The two step process of letting them move their bodies, find what is fascinating to them, and then slowing down and paying attention to detail showed me that my children could indeed focus. Without any drugs. Without missing any recess. And learning about the amazing world right out our back and front doors.

My youngest son (age 10 in this photo), brings in our hydroponic cucumber harvest. This variety is Ashley Cucumber and hydroponic-adapted seed can be found in our Grow Your Health Gardening (GYHG) Seed Co. store. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening
Our son, Joshua, shows just how big our kale harvest was off of one Tower Garden last spring when it was at it’s full production mode. We processed all this kale freezing some for healthy smoothies and making some into healthy kale chips which my kids love as a snack. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Understanding how a child learns and helping them make connections is key

And the beauty of this ‘learning method”, if you will, is you are using both sides of the child’s brain. Very young children in particular are very right-brain hemisphere dominant, especially during their first three years of life. According to the book “The Whole Brained Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by M.D. Siegel and Ph.D., Bryson, you want to encourage cross-brain learning functions whenever possible. [Get the book] They write, “We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. … What molds our brain? Experience.”

We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. … What molds our brain? Experience.”

Siegel and Bryson, “The Whole Brained Child

When using watercolors and painting, you are tapping right brain creativity, but in giving them the task of looking and remembering detail, you are tapping left brain logic. If you have a child that asks “why” all the time (I remember my mother getting exasperated with me at one point because I was this kind of child), know it’s their left-brain wanted to know the linear cause-effect relationship in the world and to express that logic through language. It is a blessing to have a “why” asking child as they are wanting to make connections and learn!

Siegel and Bryson I think would agree with this outdoor Charlotte Mason / classical education method of learning for they write, “…children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences.” So, getting in the habit of engaging a child by focusing on the world outside your front or back door is key in engaging and inspiring these kinds of conversations. What I found over time is when they were older, they were able to have some very grown-up conversations with adults to discuss their experiences and relate to people in a way their peers didn’t seem to be doing. In their high school years, I also saw a richness to what they wrote about as they drew from these memories and made connections to the world around them on a bigger scheme. My middle 16 year old son, who was given time outside from first grade on to explore his world continues to BLOW ME AWAY at times with the connections he makes with literature and history right now as a homeschooling Junior in high school. And he writes poetry for fun… again… I’m blown away by him and his creative mind that taps into the logic of what he is perceiving about the world around him.

Children will watch what you do and follow your lead

I know what I’ve mentioned here is not specific to gardening, but as we were doing every day life, this kind of learning was adapted to what I was doing — growing food. For example one day, my son, Joshua, noticed me saving some seed from some fruit I had processed from the grocery store. I would set these seeds on a tray in the corner of my kitchen to dry and save. Soon, I noticed my seeds were being added to by someone else in the family. Other seeds being added to my drying area. Come to find out, Joshua had taken notice of my actions and he was inspired. He saved seeds I would have never tackled! I remember he saved a mango seed one time and actually grew it into a tree! (It was doing great until it was left outside on a cold night [sad face]). Today, Joshua has graduated for Seed Saving School from the Seed Savers Exchange and is a great help in isolating, pollinating, collecting and processing seed for our Grow Your Health Gardening Seed Co.

Joshua collects basil seed off of our hydroponic system. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Involve your children in what you’re learning or curious about

If your children see you learning and inquisitive, they will see that learning isn’t limited to school — learning is for adults, too — it’s an attitude. And a mind that continually learns is a good thing. I didn’t want to only teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic and science — I wanted them to learn how to learn. I knew if they had the skills to find the information they didn’t know, they could learn anything whether I was there or not. And I had the honor and priviledge of being that example to them from a very young age.

If your children see you learning and inquisitive, they will see that learning isn’t limited to school — learning is for adults, too — it’s an attitude.

—Erin Castillo, Grow Your Health Gardening
Here, one of my twins finishes potting up various pots to learn about root growth and development as part of a lesson on aerial root pruning.
Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

When my twins were about 8th and 9th grade, I began to really get intrigued by this idea of hydroponics. I was tired of fighting the Georgia clay soil. I would amend it and invariably it was never enough, because the very next season it always returned to clay. And then I fought the weeds. Oh the weeds! As a busy mom of five at this point, I didn’t have the band-width to be out watering the garden and weeding day in and day out. I was doing good just to feed them three square meals a day and get their lessons done. There just wasn’t enough of me to go around it seemed and so our little gardening patch suffered as a result. But I missed growing food and I was determined to find an easier solution. So, when I say I dove in to learning more about hydroponics, I mean a full-head-long plunge. I watched videos, read articles, purchased books, attended workshops. I immersed myself in learning whatever I could find on the subject online and from the library, new books and old books. (Even still today I listen to podcasts and read to learn more.)

There was a YouTube video by a gentleman that particularly caught my eye. He was growing tomatoes in bato-buckets. It was a gravity fed circular system and it fascinated me. I was astounded at how simple the system was while getting seemingly high production out of the plants he was growing. I wanted to see if what he was claiming was true, so I talked my husband into helping me and the boys build a simple system. As part of their High School Biology class, I incorporated some botany since they were studying the differences between plant cells and animal cells. I had the older boys track the pH levels and PPM levels using some meters I had picked up from the hydroponics store in Atlanta. I was amazed at how the tomatoes thrived and the parsley and basil flourished! And I didn’t have to weed or water a single thing! I just had to make sure my reservoir was full and nutrients and pH were in range every couple of days or so during the hottest days of the season. We had tomatoes and herbs growing until our first snow that year! I was impressed! I was hooked!

We didn’t just stop at the hydroponics for learning… we dove in and even did other types of labs. For example, we did one on how different pots affected root growth through air pruning. In this exercise, our sons learned that roots need oxygen to grow and how air pruning will strengthen a plant through encouraging lateral root development. The more roots your plant has, the more it can uptake nutrients you offer it whether in soil or in a hydroponic/aeroponic system.

Our then 7 year old daughter holding hydroponically grown Rainbow Swiss Chard. I had to move some things around in my Tower Garden and we both learned that day that Rainbow Swiss Chard has roots that are the same color as the stalk! How cool is that?!
Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

The rest is history as some would say… we have explored all sorts of growing systems using water including aquaponics, the Aerogardens, and my go-to-favorite, the vertical garden growing system the Tower Garden (full disclosure, I am a Rep as well because I love it so much and I want Mama’s to succeed in growing healthy food for their family!) Since this all began, I now hold certifications in hydroponics, aquaponics, seed starting, a graduate from the SSE Seed School and more. Joshua (the son who was and still is a seed saver) can now take any orchid and rescue it, bringing it back to it’s intended beauty. And, as far as I know, he is also the youngest to become a Master Gardener in our county.

I am so thankful for our local County Extension Office — they have been an excellent resource to our family as we have learned over the years and grown. I will talk more about this resource in upcoming articles and how you can tap into it for FREE! Here Joshua holds an azalea plant he won for attending a local workshop. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening
Tower Gardens were a game-changer for how much food we could grow in a small space. Here, we grew over 100 plants on our back deck. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

And the learning hasn’t stopped with just my sons as they’ve graduated from High School and have moved on to other things. My younger children keep me going. One recent example has come out of a book I read which made me want to get better at growing flowers in my garden. I began to follow a gardener from Virginia (also in zone 7, so similar growing conditions to where I live in Atlanta, GA), Lisa Mason-Ziegler. I picked up her book “Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty“. In this book, she talks about how important the flowers are to the food bearing plants in the garden — not simply for pollination, but for bringing in natural predators and balancing the ecosystem. I would play her Facebook live events while I worked on my own seed starting. There’s always something new you can learn…

Be watchful of what delights your child and then be purposeful…

It was around this time-frame where I was listening to Lisa and working in the garden that my then 7-year-old daughter ran up to me with a clutch-full of Dandelions and wild Violets. Then a thought fluttered through my mind… she loved flowers so much that she brought them to me to share her joy in them. How could I join her in that? If I could combine that desire to pick flowers she had with my desire to grow more flowers … and that led to growing two flower beds last season of sunflowers and zinnias. My husband financially backed my hair-brained idea and generously gave me some sunflower seeds and kits from Lisa Ziegler’s shop for Mother’s Day. I was so tickled to dive right in and do this project with my daughter.

Throughout the growing season, she learned so much about how plants grow and what flowers needed after they were picked to extend their vase life. We even learned how you can use lemon basil or cinnamon basil as filler in your arrangement and it makes it smell divine! My favorite part was when we would go out to pick flowers together she would be stripping off lower leaves and say, “Mom, thank you so much for helping me plant a flower garden.” Kid you not — this is forever engrained in my mind as a special moment we would share. And she didn’t just say it once, but multiple times throughout the season. I knew we were onto something that was working!

In looking back on last season, I think it also gave her something a little bit different than what I was doing (growing food) that she could make her own. It was HER flower patch to pick from anytime she wanted. She may not understand for a long while that I was intentional about all that, but that’s okay. The spark of learning about flower growing has been lit and my job is to fan the flames of learning and supporting that interest. She and I both find great delight not only in bringing bouquets in to our home and making our home environment beautiful, but also sharing with neighbors and those who need encouragement.

As I write this, in our upcoming growing season she is growing more cool season annuals. What’s more, she is dreaming and talking about one day owning a flower and gift shop. Will she do that? I hope so… I love the idea of encouraging entrepreneurship, but what I love more is she is learning about how plants grow and finding joy in the journey. She is learning through gardening. And the best part is, I am blessed to get to do that right along side her. We grow in relationship as mother and daughter doing something we both love — she can be mimicking my example of growing plants, but make it her own by it being her own little patch to nurture and enjoy.

Like Siegel and Bryson mentions in their book, “Spending time with family and friends and learning about relationships, especially with face-to-face interactions, will wire it in yet other ways. Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops…This wire-and-rewire process is what integration is all about: giving our children experiences to create connections between different parts of the brain. When these parts collaborate, they create and reinforce the integrative fibers that link difference parts of the brain.”

—Siegel and Bryson “The Whole-Brain Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
Our seven-year-old daughter waters in her Sunflower and Zinnia transplants while her big brother, Joshua, helps with finishing touches to the flower bed. I love how gardening brings our family together. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Here’s the main thread through all these years with my children… we had fun growing in relationship with each other and learning about the world we live in along the way. My children are more connected to where their food comes from and why they should eat those greens I put on their plate, because we have reached out the world outside our front door and have brought it into our lives. They have learned a life skill in how to grow food — they can be independent and self-sufficient in a world with a burdened food system where people rely on large scale agricultural farming practices. When Covid hit and grocery stores were bare, we had food growing and didn’t feel fearful. We felt empowered. They have developed some great character traits in patience and now understand the work that went into the food that is on their plate making them more appreciative of others and our hard-working farmers. These are just some of the great things gardening has brought to our family and I’m only getting started…

I’ll stop there for now, because there’s more I’d like to share about teaching children to grow their own food, but hopefully that will give you an idea of a little bit of our journey as a family and how I approach involving children in the garden… more to come… but for now the garden calls me with our 2021 seed season ramping up. (My children are finished with their math and ready for a break so we are all headed outside for a bit.) Let me know if you have learned something through gardening with your child in the comments below. I love to hear from you!

Chat with you again soon…

— Erin

PS: A special thank you to my help mate and best friend — my husband, who has supported me every step of the way. Love you.

Erin Castillo is a certified hydroponic grower, small-scale farmer outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and owner of Grow Your Health Gardening Seed Co.. She loves to share her passion for helping others grow healthier lives through connecting with people she loves while also growing nutritious food.