Children come by gardening naturally. They view their world with wonder, they love to be outdoors and they like to get messy. Most importantly, they want to spend time with us. Gardening with the children in our lives gives us an opportunity to celebrate the earth and the community that we share with all living things. Our kids learn from us and, in turn, we learn from them how to see, hear and feel new things and some that we had stopped noticing.
Every day in the garden can be an unpredictable adventure. We can cultivate our children's understanding and appreciation of nature by answering their questions in imaginative ways and teaching them how to respect all the living things in their world. They will come to know the seasons and the blessings of all types of weather. They will start to understand that all aspects of the natural world around them are connected. Children like imaging how the healthy garden is an interdependent family of the plants and animals that includes them.
Children are naturally curious. They enjoy the process of exploring their neighborhood. Their garden may be in a pot on a deck, in their yard or anywhere they are given the opportunity to discover the nature that's around them. Maybe they can pick an old beach bucket to plant in or an old kitchen colander. Be sure to give each child his or her own separate plot. This encourages a sense of ownership and responsibility. A place for a tea party, lunch with you or a toy tractor track is always a reward for their efforts.
All gardening activities and natural explorations require our children to experience hands on the soil, plants and water in their world. They will inevitably get dirty and wet hands, clothes and shoes. Save old clothes and shoes, keep rain boots handy and give them gloves for their little hands so no one is afraid when they get dirty.
Encourage your child to experience the natural world with all of his senses. Something magical and new is always happening in the garden. We just need to take the time to discover it. They will learn when it is safe to touch, smell and taste and when they should check with you first.
Practice being still in the outdoors for short periods of time. Keeping their eyes and ears open lets them hear the buzzing of the bees, the sounds different birds make in flight and when they sing, and they will see critters that only like to come out when they see little movement around them.Ê
Consider how nature recycles. By starting a compost area they will learn that nature recycles as insects, worms, bacteria and fungi break down dead plant and animal matter. Kids love feeding the compost pile, watering it, giving it air as they stir it and never cease to be amazed when it turns into new soil. They can learn that all living organisms need water and air and how to conserve it and protect the quality of it.
There are plants that are child friendly. This means that they grow quickly from seed (children need to see quick results for their efforts), are pretty foolproof, may smell or taste good or may be colorful and useful to them as a toy or craft item. Pumpkins take a lot of room to grow but they come in all shapes, sizes and colors and they can become a child's Halloween jack-o'-lantern.
Almost all children eat corn and they love watching the tiny seeds become huge plants. We planted popcorn one year and the kids loved shucking it and watching their corn pop - eating it, too! There is always a place to plant carrots. Pots, baskets or gardens with rich, loose soil are the perfect place for carrots. Kids love the varieties that make small, child-sized carrots. Cherry tomatoes invite children to snack on them whenever they are in the garden.
All kids eat potatoes and they are so easy to grow. Most bean seeds are also reliable and watching the pole varieties scramble up a trellis you created with your child is a lot of fun. Beans are prolific producers and kids love picking them. Kids love sunflowers too. They can pick them for a vase in their homes or let them stay on the plant to feed the critters in their neighborhood.
Plant a theme garden. Does your family like salsa? You can plant a garden of a tomato seedling, a jalapeno pepper seedling, a tomatillo seedling, a few garlic cloves and a cilantro seedling in a large pot. Kids love harvesting their crop, preparing their salsa and sharing it with family and friends.
Do they love pasta with pesto? Basil is also easy to grow; bring it into the kitchen with your garlic and make dinner. The kids will show great pride in being a part of contributing to the family table.
Having some child-sized tools makes it easier, safer and more fun for kids to work with you in the garden. Have a small shovel, rake, hoe, watering can and short handled trowels and digging tools. Give them serious tools. Cheap ones break.
Ultimately, introducing a child to gardening is a wonderful chance to encourage a life-long interest in nature and gardening. It is also an opportunity for you to spend the best quality time with your child, fostering the patience for experiences they will never forget.
There are some fun books with activities for gardening with children. "Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots" by Sharon Lovejoy, "Gardening with Young Children" by Beatrys Lockie, and "Gardening with Children," a Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide, are all great sources.Ê
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.Ê