CONTRARY to myth, children are welcome on allotments, particularly if they are keen to learn and lend a hand. My daughter Ella was nine when she began her allotmenteering career. We arrived on a freezing winter day to find Couch Grass Central, with sheds full of stinking clothes, rusted tools and rotting chairs. I thought she would run a mile, but instead she relished the challenge. Now freshly painted inside and out, Ella's shed has an old table, a chair and even bunches of hanging dried flowers. Who needs computer games when a girl has her own real estate?
Children and allotments. I can imagine your horror. Yet even toddlers and allotments can work well with a bit of preparation, and the advantages for family life are far greater than just fresh veg.
For example, it doesn't hurt children to learn about boundaries while still young: not walking on other people's plots, or screaming. They see their parents regularly in a new environment, happy and unstressed, while time out in the fresh air does wonders for a child's mental health.
Allotments also teach children social skills, for here they can interact safely within parental earshot with strangers of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. Older allotmenteers are often born teachers, and can be a real blessing for children whose own grandparents live far away. Allotments are traffic free, providing endless opportunities to see wildlife. At various time of the year our own regular visitors include herons, wrens, crows and a large fox.
This month, Ella and I have been mulching in barrow loads of manure. From the beginning, I gave her responsibility for her own mini-plot, so now she is keen to work with me. At home, a pop-up mini-greenhouse is invaluable for getting seedlings started early, making the allotment part of daily life, whether she can visit it or not. A wooden indoor plant house is on her birthday list.
As many schools find, there is nothing like growing produce to give children a huge interest in preparing and eating good food. Radishes, mustard and cress are quick and tasty, while curly kale is delicious eaten in handfuls. Ella is also the proud owner of a large gooseberry bush, which has inspired her to learn to cook proper old-fashioned fruit crumble. She looks at me in awe when I tell her that when I was her age, I used to have it for school lunch most days, with extra custard on Fridays.
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