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Growing green giants - encouraging your child to head out into the garden

Plodding around in wellies, planting seeds, weeding, watering – gardening is a fun way for children to learn all about the food chain, as well as how to nurture plants as they grow.

And because there’s an end point in sight – when their plant begins to bear fruit or when their potato plant fl owers – it makes it all the more enticing for children to get digging.

Incredible Edibles, run by Agri Aware, is one educational programme that is helping primary school children around the country develop their green fi ngers. Running for the three years now, Incredible Edibles gives growing packs and raised beds to primary schools so they can grow vegetables from March to the end of the school year.

“The main aim of this project is to increase children’s consumption of their fi ve-a-day,” explains Aiveen Carr, PR and education executive at Agri Aware, itself a charitable trust that’s fi nanced by the agri-food industry.

“This year we have 1,700 schools in total taking part, but 1,000 schools have received a raised bed and the other 700 schools have a grow pack, which is the seeds and the materials such as potato grow bags and strawberry plants.

“We asked schools to register with us in January. The fi rst 1,000 schools that came back to us got the raised beds and the rest of the schools got grow packs,” explains Carr.

“A company called Quick Crop in Sligo has provided us with the 1,000 raised beds for the schools. The children are growing potatoes, lettuce, carrots, strawberries and turnips at the moment.”

The raised beds themselves are about 1.5m by 1.7m in size and Incredible Edibles also supplies the compost for them.

“So, say if you are an inner-city school, you can still have a garden,” says Carr.

Flower power

One benefi t of getting your child gardening is they become more aware of healthy foods.

“What we have found is if children grow their own carrots, for example, they are much more likely to eat them and ask for them in the home,” Carr continues.

As part of Incredible Edibles, children also get recipes and activity sheets to help them discover the joy of gardening.

“I know from talking with teachers that the children literally go out and measure their plants with a ruler every day to see how they are growing!” she says. “They take turns doing the watering and weeding.

“It’s good in the sense that it fi ts in with every age group, for boys and girls and also children with special needs.”

The Food Cycle

Carr says Incredible Edibles has also carried out surveys amongst teachers and parents who report that when children start gardening they understand the food cycle a lot better.

“They get to grips with the fact that food doesn’t necessarily just appear on the shelves and in some cases that it’s not successful – if you’ve got bad weather or you don’t look after them they won’t survive. It teaches them a lot about food wastage and the importance of compost and eating food that’s grown in Ireland as well. They become aware of what different countries grow and climates.” Incredible Edibles also collaborates with the Irish charity Grow It Yourself (GIY) from time to time if a specifi c school needs someone to come in and show them how to garden.

Founded by journalist and author Michael Kelly, GIY aims to inspire people to grow their own food. There are now about 100 GIY groups around Ireland.

“We have given schools the opportunity to get in contact and we set them up with a GIY volunteer in their local area,” explains Carr.

Kelly points to how getting children to garden by themselves at a young age is a unique opportunity for informing them about food.

“By teaching them about the importance of growing and eating healthy, seasonal and local food, we can start to have an impact on the problems in our food chain and on the epidemic of childhood obesity,” he says.

“We are giving these kids a really important life skill. This is the fi rst generation of Irish people that simply don’t have the skills they need to grow their own food.”

According to Carr, some schools also might have a farmer’s market on a very small scale so children learn that food is a business and the value of looking for Irish-grown foods.

It’s also a good way of giving children ownership of a project.

“They realise that it’s important to look after something, as the project lasts for a couple of months. There’s a real sense of achievement.”

And in terms of environmental awareness, senior classes can be educated about food miles, she adds.

“It’s one thing to show a food pyramid to children but it’s another to actually show them how fruit and vegetables are grown and how they’re good for you. They can see the practical side so that in turn increases their inclination to eat vegetables,” Carr adds.

In bloom!

The Incredible Edibles website is a great resource for parents and children in general, as you can download activities, recipes or quizzes to do at home. Children can also watch videos about sowing carrot seeds, planting strawberries and germinating seeds.

Dietitian Paula Mee also has a selection of videos on the website about the food rainbow and nutrition.

For more information visit www.incredibleedibles.ie.

Get growing

The Grow It Yourself website is also a helpful resource, with information on how to go about starting a vegetable garden. GIY holds group activities that include monthly meetings, which are free of charge, and are open to all – beginners and experts, young and old.

Explains founder Michael Kelly: “We are trying to get 100,000 people to take the GIY pledge to grow something they can eat – we want kids to take the pledge on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/giyireland.

See www.giyireland.com for further information on gardening.