Photo credit: Sandy Michaels
Creating a garden that appeals to children entices them away from the electronic gadgets and introduces them to the wonders of nature. Follow these simple steps to assure a positive, nurturing experience in the child-friendly garden.
Prepare children for gardening by having them wear designated gardening clothes, gloves and shoes. Apply sunscreen and wear a hat to protect the skin. Avoid garden activities during the hottest time of the day (11 am to 2 pm). Ensure that children drink water and rest in the shade to avoid dehydration.
Use common sense tactics to keep the garden safe for children. Garden organically when possible, and keep any chemicals and fertilizers out of reach. Never leave buckets of water unattended around young children. Remind children never to eat plants that haven’t been properly identified by an adult. Supervise children during their gardening activities.
Children’s age and developmental level determine their level of participation in garden tasks. Toddlers can play in the soil, make mud pies or move the earth with toy trucks and excavators. Suitable tasks for young children include watering, harvesting and planting seeds. Older children can participate in a variety of activities, such as preparing the soil, planting, mulching, weeding, pruning and harvesting. Be prepared to help out behind the scenes, especially with the youngest gardeners.
Offer children the use of lightweight, easy-to-handle tools. These tools can be made specifically for children or you can make your own. For example, cut down the handle of an old hoe to make the hoe a child-appropriate size. Provide a small hand trowel and rake, as well as child-size gardening gloves. Give children a rain gauge so they can measure the amount of rainfall in a week. If water fall is less than an inch, help them water their garden using a watering can personalized with a permanent marker. A ruler can be useful to determine seed spacing or measure the length of a wiggly earthworm. A magnifying glass can bring the natural work into sharp focus, whether it is the intricate parts of a flower or the colors of an insect’s wings. Teach children how to clean and take care of their garden tools.
Give children a small garden space, so they do not feel overwhelmed. This small area can be part of an existing garden, a separate space, or a large container. A small area is easy to maintain and keeps children interested and involved.
Select colorful vegetables and flowers that are easy to grow and harvest. Plants that mature quickly are rewarding for children. Consider choosing varieties of plants that have sensory and textural properties.
Sunflowers are a must for a child’s garden. The cheerful flowers yield 100s of seeds, which will dry naturally in the late summer sun. Roast some for snacking or let the birds gobble them up. Children will be fascinated by the flower’s sun-chasing behavior. Nasturtiums’ vibrant orange, yellow, and red flowers as well as the leaves are edible and add color and a peppery taste to a fresh garden salad. For a fairy sized sip of nectar, bite off the point at the back of the flower and suck. Emphasize to children that not all flowers can be eaten safely.
Cherry or grape tomatoes planted as seedlings yield a bountiful harvest of sweet, bite-sized and ready to eat fruit. Bush beans grow quickly, have high yields, and remain short and stocky, perfect for young children to reach and harvest. The large seeds are compatible with little fingers. ‘Purple Queen’ is a bush variety with ripe beans that are easy for children to see due to their unique purple color. Beets, whose wrinkled round seeds are the right size for grasping and sowing, are a two for one vegetable. The red roots, easily visible above the soil, can be pulled and eaten raw or cooked; the leaves can be snipped when young and are a delicious addition to salads. If garden space is available, pumpkins can provide meat for pies, seeds for roasting, and, of course, Jack-o-lanterns to carve at Halloween. For larger-size pumpkins, pick all but three or four blossoms from the vine.
Herbs are ideal for children’s gardens because they are easy to grow and smell wonderful, with each plucked leaf a tasty snack. Sweet basil, with its abundance of leaves, is delicious to eat fresh and goes well with child-friendly favorites like spaghetti and pizza. Dill has the aroma of pickles as well as beautiful feathery foliage. As the host plant for the black swallowtail, children may be able to witness first-hand the life cycle of a butterfly.
Gardening with children is fun and offers opportunities for discovery, physical activity, and a better understanding of the process of growing food. Be prepared, however, for seeds that are planted in clumps, uneven watering, seedlings mistaken for weeds, crooked rows and trampled plants. For most children, gardening is just another form of play. However, they are learning useful skills and values applicable throughout their lives.