Some believe that the story of man began in a garden and that we all might still be carelessly frolicking there had it not been for one tempting piece of produce—that apple. Others believe that our relationship with gardens started around 23,000 BCE with the Neolithic Revolution when humans abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and began to rely upon agriculture and domesticated animals for survival. For thousands of years thereafter, people spent their days working shoulder-to-shoulder with their families, tilling the earth and reaping its rewards. Through the centuries, gardens were an important part of daily life.
Only recently have things changed. Never before have humans been so disassociated with nature, removed from the environment that sustains and nourishes them, and from the earth and the plants upon which their very lives depend. This change has been quick and it has been drastic.
The shift began at about the time of the American Revolution. Back in 1776, 90 percent of all Americans, including nearly all the Founding Fathers, were farmers. They worked the land just as their ancestors had before them. But fast-forward just 200 years. Now, less than two percent of the United States population consider themselves farmers. People in the United States and around the world have spent the last two centuries moving into town and finding new ways to make a living, the vast majority of which are in no way connected to farming.
Today, most of us, including our children, can go days at a time without our feet even touching soil. The 2010 United States Census revealed that more than 83 percent of all Americans, and an even greater percentage of American children, now live in an urban environment. That percentage is increasing with every passing day. And as it increases, our substantive interaction with nature and plants diminishes.
This change in lifestyle has effected a dramatic change in thinking. When looking for homes in urban areas, people are now more interested in closet space than they are in gardens. The priority has shifted to low-maintenance spaces; landscapes to drive by, not gardens to live in. If a home has an extensive garden, it is not uncommon for realtors to advise that it be removed before a home is put up for sale because the added work of a garden can decrease the perceived value of the property.
More people are choosing apartments and condominiums. The resulting increase in urban construction is diminishing the availability of space to create gardens and accessible wild spaces. Such spaces once played a very important role in education. They served as casual, living classrooms where children could make discoveries and learn as they played on their own time, and in their own way. The moms of 50 years ago understood this. They let their children go outside and play with the only admonition to, “Be home in time for dinner.” This too has changed. People fear unsupervised play in unsupervised spaces. Children are tightly scheduled with organized activities led by instructors. The free educational opportunities that outdoor spaces provide are diminishing and chance discoveries that add wonder to our lives are, too.
The news tells us that our education system is at risk. Some say that our schools are not as effective as they once were. But perhaps it is not the schools that have changed. What is missing may be that wealth of experience that children once brought with them into the classroom.
With very little effort, gardens and wild outdoor spaces easily bring the excitement of the natural world into focus for young people in a way that allows them to construct a framework for practical, useful knowledge. A self-constructed framework has meaning for each child and can provide the foundation for a lifetime of learning and inspired living. It is clear that gardens grow much more than plants. Perhaps it is time for a garden intervention!
For more information explore Kids Growing Strong, whose mission is to connect kids and their families with the wonders to be found in the garden. Visit www.kidsgrowingstrong.org for resources to help prepare kids for a happy, healthy, and strong life.