Kids, Nature and Food

04/04/2009 Jude Fanton

IMAGE Girl with massive daikon seed head in our Seed Savers Gardens. Kids love finding seeds, roaming through fruity forests and harvesting fruit

Why every child should live in a diverse, complex and productive garden and learn how to harvest the wilds.

There is an old saying that civilisation lost the plot when we let the dogs inside at all, and kids inside before dark. Nature Deprivation Syndrome has to be one of the most frightening newly-named ills that afflict our young. It has consequences not only on the psyche but on physical health.

When kids don’t roam wild and semi-cultivated areas, lost is their sense of the periodicity of eating in season. Seasonal eating excites on the principle of expectation increasing pleasure.

When kids don’t roam the neighbourhood, lost too is the connection with older people and other neighbours and the connection between food, seed and the soil. Kids love to find out how plants produce seeds and how to plant them – here daikon radish seeds at Seed Savers Centre in Byron Bay When I was a kid in the suburbs of Adelaide, if we came inside for something to eat before lunch or dinner, it was either, ‘Go to the nectarine/peach/apricot/orange/almond tree and have a feed,’ or ‘Take an apple from the box’ (bought at the farmers’ market). If we tarried it was, ‘Now go outside and play.’

How have we arrived at the point where Western children experience so little of Nature? Where even middle class children don’t have a backyard, so much space do houses take up on blocks? Where children don’t know what plant is edible and what not? Where harvesting the garden and collecting wild foods has declined to the point where even adults are unfamiliar with seasonal foods and their location? Bring up your kids ‘a little cold, a little dirty and a little hungry’, was the maxim in our parents’ time.

The parental habit of giving your children time in Nature seems to run in families. My mum and her three siblings had copious procuce from the garden. They slept in a flywire sleep-out, in Murray Bridge, SA, very cool in the winter. Later whenever we visited our grandparents we kids slept there and loved hearing the rain and sometimes feeling the droplets through the wire on our faces. We brought up our own three kids in Third World-like huts on the edge of a subtropical rainforest, in a huge productive garden, eating seasonal produce and our chicken’s eggs. They roamed the fields and nearby forests for wild foods. We ate four species of mushrooms that no-one else seemed to know about. As a consequence, our children, like us, have good immune systems, because they were challenged. They gained confidence in their capacity to survive in any circumstances.

IMAGE Michel has shown our grandchildren how to harvest papayas with a fishing net

Valued skills in our family are to find food anywhere and rustle up a tasty meal from anything, for whomever is around. Consequently our kids, now grown and with children of their own, can judiciously harvest a garden and the wilds, and confidently cook for many people. They have lived and travelled extensively in East Asia and Europe and are street-food-eating masters. Our birthright – wild-harvesting Picnics are not what we can buy and pack in plastic boxes, but what knife, tool, basket, box, tarpaulin or ladder we might need.

We know what season and where to look for mangoes, lilli pilli, wild lemons, wild asparagus, apples, blackberries (these last two up on a cool plateau), nuts of all colour, mushrooms (we eat five species in our area), seaweed (six). Some of these plants are escapees from cultivation that do well in the wild, say along roadsides, some are planted in parks, some are bushfoods, some are growing on friends’ properties. Crabs, oysters, fish and fresh roadkill are our game.

IMAGE Children in fruity forest at Seed Savers Centre in Byron Bay

Wild-harvesting is the birthright of every child. Seeking mushrooms, picking berries, going nutting are fond memories from the childhood days of the luckiest among us. Apart from the huge excitement of finding delicious fruits and nuts apparently for free, the child has a direct experience of that aspect of the human condition that is easy to forget, our dependence on Nature. Even edible weeds, or ‘horta’ to the spanakopita-making Greeks, are a study in themselves. No matter if the effort of seeking and collecting is not cost-effective, the value is in the experience itself and in broadening children’s tastes.

Challenging taste buds The food garden is a critical tool for challenging children’s taste-buds with natural and fresh food. How can the modern child be so fussy about food? Hunger and exercise are the best sauce. Children who are disinclined to eat fresh foods may feel more motivated with produce they have helped to grow. It may be their first time. The objective with such children is to have them taste a little bit. Children’s taste-buds that have been schooled with commercially-grown bland fruits and vegetables and increasing amounts of processed foods need tutoring. More than half the food items available in a supermarket are artificially flavoured. This gives children a skewed impression of real flavours. For example wood shavings are routinely used to make strawberry flavouring that can still be called ‘natural flavour’ on the label. When considering what to feed the kids, rather than consulting a book with a view to drawing up a shopping list, wander out into the garden and create your own menu from what is ready.

Take the kids into the wild to explore the edibles. They’ll work up an appetite, drop any pickiness and savour the dense flavours. And there’ll be less Nature Deprivation.