Health and Safety, those three small words that can create such anxiety.
And when it comes to gardening with children in an early childhood setting, those three small words can be an even greater concern, but they don’t need to be. The health and safety issues are outweighed by the benefits children gain from gardening. However, they do need to be discussed and addressed.
Some of the questions I have been asked since I began Growing Kiwi Gardeners and started gardening programmes in early childhood centres are:
Should they wear gloves?
What if they eat a plant before it is ripe?
What about legionnaire’s disease?
Should we have masks?
These are all valid questions that need to be answered, especially for ECE teachers who are responsible for the care and education of the young children who attend their settings.
So what risks should we be aware of and how can we mitigate them?
Firstly, if you are starting out with a new garden, it pays to get the soil tested to ensure there are no hazardous chemicals or toxins in the soil. Likewise avoid the use of chemicals when gardening with young children.
Secondly, check on any allergies that children may have, and what the treatment options are should the allergy be triggered by working in the garden.
Thirdly, garden tools can also be a potential hazard. You should have children-sized gardening tools for children to use. Adult tools are too big and increase the risk of injury to self or others. If you are using metal tools, they can be sharp and we therefore need to teach children how to use the tools correctly, and ensure we remind them about correct use if we see them using the tools incorrectly or inappropriately.
Now to address those questions I have been asked:
“Should they wear gloves?”
Cuts or sores can be potential traps for bacteria and infection, so make sure that these are covered before gardening. This could be with sticking plasters and/or gloves. Gloves can be difficult for young children to manage and they also reduce the sensory experience of feeling the soil and make it harder for them to pick up small seeds to sow, or to hold a seedling gently. Again, while recommended, as long as you have a strict hand washing procedure, then you may choose not to use them. However, if you do use gloves, make sure they are child sized and be prepared to put them on a lot during the gardening experience as they often fall off and can be frustrating for both child and adult.
“What if they eat a plant before it is ripe?”
One aspect of gardening is watching a plant grow and learning when it is the right time to pick, and what part of the plant is able to be eaten. Teach children never to pick or eat anything from the garden without first checking with a teacher or other adult. For very young children this is about vigilance and consistency of message. In my experience, if a child does pick a green tomato or strawberry, they will spit it out and not eat it because it doesn't taste good. I don't believe we should not have a garden in case a child eats something they shouldn't. If you are working with very young children, then plant things they can eat like herbs, leafy greens and edible flowers.
“What about legionnaire’s disease?” “Should we have masks?”
One of the biggest health and safety issues that has gained much press over the past couple of years is legionnaires disease. A type of pneumonia, it is a potentially fatal disease that is contracted by inhaling the airborne droplets or particles that contain the bacteria. It is found in seed raising mix, potting mix, compost and soil, and symptoms include fever, coughing, chills, muscle aches and progressive breathing difficulties. Yes, it is something to be aware of, but also know that it is more common in older people, especially if they smoke or have a poor immune system or a chronic illness. Most people who are exposed to it do not get sick. Children rarely get the infection and if they do, it is usually mild or they have no symptoms at all.
How can we mitigate the chances of contracting legionnaire's disease?
- Cut the bags of compost/potting mix/seed raising mix open, rather than ripping the bags open, cut the opening away from your face and wear a mask while you open the bag. Leave the bag open for a period of time to allow the spores to escape.
- When working with young children transfer the mix into a bucket, which allows more air to circulate around the mix and for the spores to escape. As a side note, a bucket is also easier for children to dig out spade fulls of mix to use than the confines of a bag.
- Always use outside where the air is flowing freely about, and dampen the mix to eliminate dust, and finally store the bags out of direct sunlight.
- Following these simple steps before allowing the children to use the mix means that while masks are still recommended, there is less likelihood of the spores still being in the mix when the children use it. You can turn wearing the masks into a game if you choose to use them
If you want to find out more about legionnaire's disease then click on this link to the New Zealand Ministry of Health website
And last but not least – hand washing, which is one of the most important aspects of gardening. I have very few rules in the garden, however one rule that I do have is that of hand washing. Everyone must wash their hands thoroughly with soap after they have been doing gardening of any kind. Children must be reminded this every time I garden with them, and I go in and wash my own hands with the children so they can see me modelling hand washing. Washing hands well ensures that any bacteria are removed, and will also help avoid any cuts that a child may have of getting infected.
As you can see, gardening does come with risks, but isn't that life? Follow these simple guidelines and don't let health and safety stop you from giving the children you are teaching the joy and benefits associated with gardening. Click here to download a free tip sheet on Health and Safety when Gardening with Young Children.
If you have enjoyed this blog post, why not see my post titled Education for Sustainability through Gardening, where I discuss how the UNESCO three pillars of sustainaiblty can be addressed through gardening.
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