The term “nature deficit disorder” was first used by Richard Louv in his book, ‘Last Child in the Woods’, which explores the importance of nature in the lives of young people. Since the book’s release, many thousands of people have added the expression ‘nature deficit disorder’ to their lexicon. The expression is used to explain the effects on young people of being sequestered from the natural world with excessive use of computers and other electronic gadgets which stands in the way of access to green, open public spaces, conservation areas, urban parks and even time spent in the back yard.
Although it has been 10 years since Louv first published his landmark book, kids continue to stay indoors, often to excess. I believe that we can change this episode in our history by helping kids discover the wonders of the natural world by exposing them to fun and interesting components of it, beginning right in their own backyards.
Here is the best place to start, with 5 easy-to-do projects that are fun and fast. My top 5 ‘gardening’ projects for kids:
1. Monarch Butterflies
Show your youngsters some pictures and explain that this once-common species of butterfly has been in decline for some time. But more than that, the monarch is an important part of the cycle of life in nature, as they act as primary pollinators for many plants that produce food for us. Over 30% of our food is pollinated by members of the insect world, including honey bees. Attracting monarchs is as easy as growing some milkweed in your yard. Seeds for milkweed are available on seed racks at your local Home Hardware store. They are easy to grow. Sow them in loose soil as soon as the frost is out of the ground, in a sunny position in the garden. Milkweed is the exclusive food plant of monarchs.
2. Garden Bugs and (good) Vermin
Your garden consists of much more than plants and soil. Bugs play a very important role in the cycle of life that is always churning in your yard. An insect hotel is an excellent and fun way to introduce youngsters to the wonders of biodiversity just outside the back door. Building an insect hotel can be as complex or as simple as you want to make it. In fact, I built my own using materials that I already had in my gardening shed. Some old flagstone, 2×4’s, large blocks of wood and loose gravel all worked together to create a habitat for insects to live, breed and sleep.
Another fun project is to build a mason bee house with your kids. Drill 3/8” holes into wood that is at least 12 cm deep, making sure that there is no opening at one end of it. The female mason bee (which is common in every corner of the country and a primary garden pollinator) will lay her eggs in the round cavity of the wood. Look for mason bee houses at your local Home Hardware store.
Perhaps it goes without saying that kids will enjoy growing vegetables, including the sweet, colourful and delicious carrot. Sow carrots in deep, open soil in a sunny position, spacing seeds about 5 cm apart and rows 30 cm apart. Another seed with fast, easy results is radish seeds. Space the sowing by 10 days or so for a constant crop of fresh radishes over a long period of the summer. From sowing to harvest, it normally is a period of 45 to 55 days.
Other kid-friendly vegetables that germinate quickly and reliably include peas, beans, onion sets and leaf lettuce/mesclun mix. You will find a wide variety of Mark’s Choice vegetable seeds at Home stores across Canada.
4. Harvest Rain
The collection of rain water is a great way to encourage a myriad of wildlife to your garden. Introduce kids to neighbourhood tadpoles, toads, frogs, dragonflies and many other appealing amphibians and insects. A half barrel provides a great way to hold natural rain water and is a fun way to clean dirty hands before going indoors!
5. Visit Nature
Go on a hike with your kids to a local wooded area in your local public green spaces. Follow a trail and look for butterflies, hummingbirds, bumble bees and unusual flowers. Take your time, as the point is not to get exercise so much as it is to explore and observe what is there, perhaps at the end of the street or a short bus ride down the road. When you see a tree that has fallen over in the woods and beginning to rot, roll it over gently and look for ants as they represent the second stage of decomposition in the journey to becoming real soil.
Together, using small steps, we can introduce this generation of kids to the fascinating world of nature that is as close as your back door. For more information on this topic, look for Mark Cullen’s new best seller, The New Canadian Garden in stores now.