If you’re looking for an engaging outdoor activity that allows the whole family to participate, consider a family garden. From selecting your vegetables and flowers, preparing the earth and planting, and finally harvesting, gardening can be a wonderful way to involve your children in a healthy hobby you can all enjoy.
Life Lessons of Gardening
Lisa Taylor, Children’s Garden Director at Seattle Tilth, a non-profit community gardening organization, has a unique take on why kids should garden. “With little people, they’re a lot closer to the ground; they have an intimate relationship with the earth. Anything we can do to bring that non-descript terra firma to life is good.”
Along with the fun of getting dirty, gardening helps children learn valuable lessons about patience as they wait for vegetables to grow, responsibility as they see how necessary their care is to the garden, and even loss when flowers die at the end of a season. “They learn about nurturing a life and what it takes to keep something alive,” says Amy Gifford, an education associate for the National Gardening Association. Gifford extols the value of exercise as children physically work in the garden, that families learn to work together and share, and that gardening helps build a child’s senses.
“One of the most important things about [vegetable] gardening is understanding where food comes from,” says Gifford. She says young children are fascinated in seeing food when it’s pulled from the ground, and they notice the similarities and differences from their garden vegetables and produce from the grocery store.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
If you’ve decided to involve your kids in gardening, you need to make some decisions—most importantly where and what your child will be gardening. “The essentials for a children’s garden are clear paths, narrow beds, and edible plants,” says Taylor. “Kids should be able to reach across the beds. They can learn where people go and where plants go.”
Gifford encourages parents to set aside a small plot in the garden or flowerbed the child can experiment with. “I like to see less regulation in the garden. The way to approach it best is that there’s nothing the kids can’t handle and get them involved from the very beginning. Let kids have their own spot,” says Gifford. “If they want to toss 10 seeds in one hole, let them and they will see what happens. Let them learn from the experience.”
Carrots and Radishes and Broccoli—Oh My!
Once you’ve decided where to let your children garden, it’s time to decide what to plant. Gifford recommends planting crops that are hearty enough to succeed and don’t require unusual care. A local nursery, good gardening book, and even the backs of seed packets should answer questions about growing habits of plants, the soil and nutrition needed, and proper watering. Instant gratification helps a lot. Plant radishes even if you don’t like them—they come up in three or four days.
At Seattle Tilth, children are introduced to a variety of plants “that are great to smell, fun to touch, good to eat,” says Taylor. She mentions fennel, lamb’s ears, and rosemary as favorites for kids, and adds that they’ve had many children who garden take interest in salads made with foods they’ve grown. “[Kids are] learning where food comes from. I think they will taste more things in a garden situation than they ever would otherwise. It’s different when you pick it, know where it comes from and have interaction with it,” says Taylor.
Gifford says vegetables are fun for children to grow because they germinate so quickly. If you are worried your little one will lose patience waiting for plants to sprout, you can germinate seeds indoors while it’s still too cold to plant outside, or you can purchase flats of vegetables or flowers ready to put in the ground. Both Taylor and Gifford emphasize that a family garden should only contain safe, non-poisonous plants and flowers.
Taylor says it’s important that parents teach children the names of plants, vegetables and flowers, especially if they have a taste or smell children can identify. “Kids love to learn the names of the plants…teaching them is a good way to teach respect for even the smallest things.”
Dress your kids in a hat and gardening clothes (meaning anything you don’t mind getting dirty) when it’s time to plant, weed, water or pick, and don’t forget to use sunscreen. Take your time with the kids and remember that a young child’s attention span may wane sooner than yours.
Kids love digging in the dirt and will benefit from having their own gardening gloves and equipment. “Child-sized tools are great if you can find quality tools,” says Taylor. “Blunt-nosed Fiskars scissors work great for cutting flowers in the garden, and children can arrange their flowers with floral tape.” She also suggests giving kids their own baskets for harvesting snacks or holding hand-picked bouquets.
Creepers and Crawlers
Looking for the wildlife in a garden is a great part of the fun for little ones. “Kids love insects and worms,” says Taylor. “Gardening introduces them to some of the living creatures in the soil, under rocks and on plants. It’s all a part of opening the world up to them.” At Seattle Tilth, Taylor lets the kids build bug houses. “We let them be creative. They build beds for the bugs, hot tubs, waterslides—things they think the bugs would enjoy.” Children are natural nurtures, she says, and understand the importance of caring for plants and other things in the garden.
Play it Safe
Both Taylor and Gifford emphasize the importance of organic gardening with children. “Parents should be concerned about sprays or chemicals [in the garden],” says Gifford. And not just when the children are physically in the garden. “Touching leaves that have been treated with chemicals and putting their hands into their mouths is dangerous; the residue can be damaging in smaller doses than it would be for adults because children’s bodies are smaller.”
It’s also good to keep any sharp, pointed tools from small children. “Set the rules about tool safety up front; don’t swing any tools around, anything sharp should be pointed down,” says Gifford. At Seattle Tilth, gardeners tell kids they are not allowed to bring tools up any higher than their belly buttons.
Gardening can be a wonderful family project filled with adventure, experimentation, and learning; and children love to learn when they’re having fun. Not only will your kids enjoy the satisfaction of nurturing life, but they’ll love spending time with you.