Gardening encourages family bonding across generations

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Anyone who gardens is happily familiar with the welcome sense of calm created by its rhythm, wholesomeness and simplicity. In a world of screens and meaningless “likes” on social media, the results of gardening are wonderfully tangible: You planted those seeds. You weeded that plot. You watered those saplings. Personally, I garden as a distraction to reduce stress. It’s a welcome departure from my seemingly endless to-do list.

Naturally, it’s a hobby for the ages – and for all ages. So when spring rolls around, I like to encourage my senior clients and their caregivers to get outside and get a little dirty … and to invite the kids! Gardening – in any shape – is the perfect activity for grandparents and grandchildren to do together. It encourages intergenerational bonding by providing a space and time for storytelling, sharing wisdom and exploring curiosities together. 

And the benefits extend beyond the emotional. “Gardening is a beautiful and useful activity for grandchildren and grandparents to share together,” said Abbey Brod Rosen, founder and owner of Kids Thrive NYC (kidsthrivenyc.com), a leading pediatric occupational therapy practice in Manhattan. “It uses a variety of sensory activities including tactile (touching and feeling the dirt), proprioception (digging and planting) and olfactory (smelling the flowers and the dirt). It is useful and important to engage these sensory systems throughout the lifespan – both with the children and the elderly – and gardening gives both generations an opportunity to experience this together in a social and loving environment.”

Pablo Rodriguez, a physical therapist at the Rhode Island Rehab Center at the Dwares Jewish Community Center in Providence, specializes in getting seniors back in tiptop shape after a fall or other injury.

“From a PT perspective, gardening and being outside in general is really good for the aging population because it’s giving them different surfaces to walk on and try to balance, as opposed to in the house,” he said. “A lot of time in PT we’ll have patients walk on a squishy surface to strengthen their balance – which basically simulates walking on grass or a garden bed.”

Here are four easy ideas to inspire your next multi-generational day in the backyard:

1: Plant wildflowers. Wildflowers are best planted in springtime, and are perfect for impatient toddlers and seniors alike. You simply scatter them in a sunny patch, stomp all over the seeds with your feet into the dirt, water and wait. The blooms are meant to look gorgeously messy – so you can’t go wrong.

2: Get a birdhouse. It’s not technically gardening, but it is in the garden, so it counts by our (admittedly lenient) standards. If you’re really crafty, you can make a birdhouse by cutting a used milk carton, or, go to the garden store with the child to pick one out. While you’re at it, grab a bag of birdseed, and voila! Instant gardening project success. Now all that’s left to do is make some lemonade and grab some lawn chairs, and watch the birds start to flock.

3: Plant beans by a fence. Beans are hard to mess up, and grow like, well, a beanstalk. They’re very thirsty, so water often, then keep an eye out for sweet pods hiding behind the leaves to munch on when you need a snack break from hauling that heavy watering can.

4: Plant tomatoes. Tomatoes are relatively easy to cultivate if you buy a bag of good fertilizer. Have your little one save and rinse out used eggshells to crumble up and mix into the soil; tomatoes love calcium. Your grandchild will fall in love with tomatoes, which is great, but even greater is the fact that you’re actually planting a seed in their mind to think of you for many years to come. Every time they bite into a garden-ripened tomato, it will trigger a memory of this time. And it will always taste sweet.

NAOMI FINK COTRONE runs the Right at Home of Rhode Island agency, which provides care to elderly and disabled adults throughout Rhode Island. When she’s not pouring her heart into her clients, you will find her in the garden.