Resilience is defined by the Oxford Online Dictionary as, “The ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficulties”. When children are very young they are learning about and dealing with complex emotions that they are trying to understand. Emotions that are agreeable, such as feeling happy and proud are easier to understand as they result in you feeling good about yourself. However, emotions that are difficult such as anger, and shame are more confusing and often more intense and can leave a child feeling out of control.

As an adult we want to be able to foster children’s emotions and help them to understand. Ultimately, we want children to learn to understand and control their emotions and learn that not all emotions will make them feel good. Their emotions and how they manage them become their vehicle for navigating the world.

However, learning to control and understand powerful and intense emotions is hard for a young child. As adults we try to understand and provide a stable support for them as they work through these confusing emotions, which is sometimes hard to do.

Research has shown that spending time in nature is calming and can help a child to regulate their emotions. Gardening can be a useful way to provide time in nature help children regulate their emotions.

Research carried out by the Royal Horticultural Society on gardening programmes in schools in the United Kingdom found that working in the garden had a calming effect on pupils. Being involved in gardening allowed children to succeed and gain confidence and self-esteem.

In my own work with 3- and 4-year-old children in early childhood settings, I have observed similar outcomes. I have watched and worked with children who initially have difficulty waiting for their turn, and sharing their tools, over time learn these skills and become successful gardeners who begin to share their knowledge with their peers. While they struggle in other situations, there is something about the hands-on physical nature of gardening that allows them the opportunity to control their emotions and urges.

Recently, science has found that the beneficial microbe, Mycobacterium vaccae increases serotonin levels in the brain, which gives us a background sense of well-being, regulates mood and fosters empathy. Gardening allows the hands and the mind to work together to create something of value and beauty that makes us feel good. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes with caring for and nurturing plants in the garden and sharing that success with others.

When we encourage children to engage in regular gardening, we provide a safe environment for them to experience different emotions.

This might be happy and positive emotions when their garden is successful. For example, when a seed germinates it is exciting. And with the ongoing care and attention that they give to that tiny sprout, to turn it into a seedling, then a plant then something that produces a fruit, flower, berry, or vegetable is rewarding. It makes the grower feel proud and happy, and they can share their joy with others.

Or there might be more negative emotions when their garden is less successful. For example, it is disappointing when seeds don’t germinate, or plants die. Annoyance or even anger when slugs, snails or caterpillars have eaten the seedlings they grew from seed. However, we can support children though these emotions by helping them learn what might have gone wrong and encouraging them to try again.

Whatever the range of emotions gardening might evoke, engaging in regular gardening experiences encourages responsibility in children. For a plant to thrive it needs to be cared for. It needs the right soil nutrients, the right location, the right amount of water and sunshine. It needs nurturing and care and periodically food, so it can grow strong and fight off insects and disease.  When children are interested in gardening, they will take on the responsibility of watering and caring for the plants they grow, and develop the confidence to ask for help if they need it.

I am an advocate for children having their own garden space, where they can choose to grow what they want, whether it is flowers, herbs, vegetables, or strawberries. Whatever they choose, if they’ve been given the opportunity to take responsibility for it, they will be learning valuable life skills, and their overall well-being will be supported and nurtured.