Gardening is enjoyable at all ages and is especially enjoyable with children! Playing and learning outdoors can engage children of all ages in physical activity, care for living things, and a sense of how the natural world works.
Start small and build relationships with land
My best advice when gardening with young children is to start small, keep it playful, and provide tools for your child to work alongside you. If you’re entirely new to gardening, start by using a trowel to turn over the soil in a corner of your backyard, an abandoned planter in your apartment complex, or around logs or rocks at a beach. What sorts of organisms and creatures might you discover? Provide your child with real tools (not plastic kid toys, but real tools for real work) and allow them to dig with you. When they encounter something interesting, take a break from digging, look closely (insect observation jars or magnifying lenses can be helpful), and begin to replace any fear or anxiety your child displays with curiosity. Model questions like, “I wonder what it eats?” or “I wonder if this is an adult or juvenile insect?” Return all living things to their habitat and follow up questions with research using a digital app or field guide to identify and learn more about the insect. You don’t need to know anything about insects yourself to model what lifelong learning can look like! Time spent exploring and asking questions about the ecosystems we exist in will build relationships that connect your children to the more-than-human world and support an environmental ethic of care as they begin to understand the interconnectedness of all living things.
They’ll eat what they grow
I’ve been gardening with young children for over 25 years and had enormous success with kids eating unfamiliar veggies by involving them in every step of the growing process. Start with browsing seed catalogues and have fun with your seed selection. For example, pink popcorn is super fun to grow, prepare, and eat; giant pumpkins or sunflowers are solid choices for observing growth over time, and cucamelons are a quirky and super easy to grow crop that kids adore. When planning your garden, also consider quick to grow and easy to harvest crops, like radishes and peas, which can reward a child’s efforts with tasty treats right from the garden through the growing season. Keep notes in a calendar for when to start or direct sow your seeds and take advantage of the numeracy skills you can practice by working out days to harvest, germination rates and spacing requirements.
Keep it playful
Gardens that welcome children thrive when they are designed around their natural instincts. For example, children tend to go over and through instead of around. If you want to keep little feet out of your garden beds, install trellis or other vertical supports for beans or peas that create natural barriers which redirect children around the planted area. Voluminous plantings, like nasturtiums or pumpkins, along the edges of garden beds can also help protect soil from being stepped on. Gardens feel welcoming to children when they are strategically designed for play. Consider adding fairy gardens, dinosaur gardens, mud kitchens and bug hotels to keep children engaged in garden play across the seasons. And don’t forget to plant for pollinators! Plantings that attract butterflies, bees, and birds (in all seasons) are all excellent choices for encouraging children to slow down, pay attention, and connect with the natural world.
About the Author
Megan Zeni is a mom of three teenagers, with over 25 years of elementary school teaching experience. Megan’s website supports teachers who are interested in locating their curricular learning in school gardens and outdoor classrooms. She is currently the Early Learning Teacher Consultant in SD#38 and a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. You can learn more about her work at meganzeni.com, or follow her on social media at @roomtoplay on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.