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Originally published Monday, September 3, 2012 at 10:00 PM

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Growing new gardeners

The Gardener Within: Master gardener and author Joe Lamp'l shares resources for sharing the joys of gardening with children.

Scripps Howard News Service

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The older I get, the more enthusiastic I become to convince folks that gardening is important. But in spite of the many aspects of gardening that make it far more than just something we do for fun or beautification, few things are more important than engaging our children in the process, especially now, with a new school year upon us.

I believe gardening is the single best learning opportunity available for children because various academic disciplines and many social-developmental skills can be addressed through it.

This is a topic I've discussed before, and I'd like to revisit it, incorporating material I've written in this space previously.

There are some worthwhile national programs that promote gardening with children. The Junior Master Gardener Program equips students with basic skills and offers certification once participation requirements are met. Approved instructors or "Master Gardener Volunteers" typically lead the program. Information can be found at www.jmgkids.us. The National Gardening Association offers articles and other resources through its website, www.kidsgardening.org. Throughout the year, grant and awards programs are also made available to qualified applicants. And the famous Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., offers fine resources at www.edibleschoolyard.org.

Such programs provide great opportunities beyond basic classroom instruction to get children back outside to enjoy nature — away from all the instant-gratification devices.

In a garden, children can breathe fresh air, discover bugs and watch things grow. And, of course, a garden offers kids and everyone else homegrown food. Youngsters can play in a place where they use their hands and connect with the earth and think and plan and hope and wonder.

In a garden, children can connect with friends and engage their parents. Real conversations can happen in a garden between brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends and friends-to-be.

Here, there are conversations about life and even death, in a way that doesn't seem so sad. In a garden, children can learn cause and effect and even patience and the sweet taste of victory.

Yes, I believe if all children had a garden in which to play, they would learn important life skills and be rewarded academically in the process. They would respect the awesomeness of nature and know that their daily actions really can make a difference for a sustainable future.

Who would have thought that engaging a child in gardening could make such a difference or that it is so important? And although it is wonderful to have organizations and companies play a major role in allowing this to happen, we need more of them. It also takes people like you and me to plant that seed and nurture its growth. I hope you are doing something to help make that happen for the children in your life or community, too.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author.

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