By Peter Sandercock
What better place for a child to get his or her hands dirty than in a garden.
It is a perfect environment for kids to play and explore. In the garden, children can do more than plant and harvest vegetables; they can also nurture aspirations, grow ideas and harvest values. They can learn to enjoy the simple pleasures of growing something, puttering in the soil and discovering the quality of fresh food.
The virtues of involving kids in gardening activities include the development of many important skills.
The Internet and gardening books are full of lesson plans connecting gardening with everything from math to biology to language arts and beyond. However, most parents are just happy to see their children in the garden playing. Fresh air and physical activity have many benefits for children, complementing the skills gained from digging, weeding and watering. It also connects them with nature and introduces a sense of peace back into their busy lives. They chase frogs and butterflies, excavate earthworms or wash off a fresh carrot and munch on it as they water the rest of the crop.
These experiences in the garden also connect children to their food.
In many ways, people have become disconnected from nature, the land, agriculture and our food. Kids learn that apples grow on trees, that potatoes have to be dug up and that carrots are actually roots. Gardening allows them to build that connection to agriculture and experience fresh foods. Unless you buy from a local grower or the farmers market, so much of the produce we eat has traveled great distances and is not always at its freshest.
We all know there is nothing like the taste of new potatoes, peas, or carrots or a ‘real’ tomato, picked and eaten fresh from the garden. Even if it is only growing a tomato plant in a container on the deck, showing children the connection between plants and food is a real and lasting gift.
Peaking Your Child’s Interest
Most children intuitively are interested in some aspect of gardening, including digging, watering and picking out plants. However, gardening takes time, and many children lose interest and become impatient while waiting for vegetables to grow. It is important to build in some pay off at each step of the process. This might be as simple as allowing them to dig the holes, water the freshly potted plants or pick out the flowers and herbs. Another good idea is not to start everything from seed. Take your kids to a local greenhouse and buy a few bedding plants to get the process started right away.
Planning and Shopping
Before you start, talk to your children about what they would like to see in the garden. Browse through seed catalogues with them and let them draw out maps or pictures of the garden. Take them with you to buy plants – discuss your successes, have them look at the different plants and smell the herbs. Find out which are their favourite vegetables or flowers and try something new together. This will make them feel like they are part of the plan and engage them in the process.
Some plants are easier to grow than others. Choosing plants that can take the heat will help ensure success. Some good choices include: marigolds, geraniums, pansies, sunflowers, carrots, radishes, and onions. Pumpkins, zucchini, beans, peas and cucumbers are usually pretty hardy once you get them started.
Make it FUN!
Kids love to water but make sure they don’t overdo it. Too much water is not good for the plants. Make jobs like pulling weeds fun. It’s a job you may not enjoy, but don’t let your kids pick up on that. Make the task fun by turning weed-pulling into a game or contest – see who can pull the most weeds. Take breaks to collect bugs, plan a picnic in the garden after the work is done, or take crayons and paper and colour a picture of the garden.
Tools of the Trade
While kids don’t necessarily need their own tools, it may be one way of motivating them. However, most kids can have fun with a spoon for digging and a recycled jar for bug collecting.
Their Own Space
Kids love to have spaces to call their own, where they are the boss and can decide the rules. Assign your child a place in the garden where he or she can decide what to plant and where. This gives them a sense of autonomy. If you do not have gardening space, give them a potted plant to call their own.
Decorating Their Space
There are numerous kits and crafts available that encourage kids to decorate their space in the garden. Stepping stones, bird feeders, found items and old toys are all great ideas. You can build on one garden theme or let it be an eclectic collection. Follow your child’s lead.
Choose a Garden Theme
Choosing a theme is a great way to not only capture a child’s imagination but also to extend an interest into the garden. A favourite book like “Peter Rabbit” is a great theme. Another idea is choosing flowers that will attract hummingbirds or butterflies. Other examples include a fairy garden to attract pixies or decorate with horseshoes and an old cowboy boot for a Western theme or a pizza garden to grow tomatoes and herbs for a pizza.
Keep it simple… silly! Gently guide your child to choose some plants that will be successful and not to get carried away with too much. If their plants don’t grow or the garden becomes too much work for them, they will likely lose interest. A planter may be the answer, especially if your family is too busy to tend to a full garden. For families who spend the summer at the lake, a good alternative is for the kids to plant a small pot of their favourite flowers and herbs and take it to the lake with them. Younger kids may even like to make planters as gifts for their teachers. By encouraging individual pots, children still get the experience of planting and nurturing plants, even without a full garden.
Follow your Child’s Lead
A garden can be so many things to so many people. Maybe you have a budding young scientist who would be interested in soil testing, an artist who draws beautiful flower pictures or a chef who likes to cook using what is grown in the garden. As parents, we can expose our kids to positive activities like gardening, follow their lead, and see what grows.