Gardening with kids can sow the seeds of a lifelong love of plants, the earth, and nature's wonders. As well as sharing an outdoor activity, you can teach your child about environmental stewardship.
Many parents wait for spring to start their vegetable and flower gardens with their children, planting seeds for the beautiful bounty—or misshapen carrots—they will harvest later in the summer. Incorporating kids into the gardening process offers them an expanded ecological perspective, as well as many mental and physical health benefits. It’s never too soon to begin gardening with kids!
Look at the bigger picture
For children, interacting with a garden is more than just planting and tending to seeds. The garden is part of a larger ecosystem that can inform and inspire kids of all ages—and offers the added benefit of getting them outside.
A 2012 survey done by the David Suzuki Foundation found that 70 percent of youth surveyed spend about an hour or less per day outdoors. The survey also showed the importance of getting kids to spend time outdoors at a young age, and the findings indicated that parents play an important role in getting younger teens to spend time outside.
Planting a relationship
Tran suggests growing plants that kids will keep wanting to revisit throughout the season, so that a relationship between child and plant can be maintained. Kids can get to know the plants on many different levels after planting by
- caring for them
- watching them grow
- harvesting them
- helping prepare them in meals
- using them to decorate the house
- turning them into gifts
- drying them
- saving seeds
Tran advises teaching kids about helpful weeds that grow in the garden too. Some of them, such as dandelion and chickweed, are edible.
Take time to observe
One of the easiest ways to encourage children to have an early connection with nature is for parents to spend time in it with them. Explore your backyard or local park, or simply go for a walk on a nearby trail.
By creating opportunities to observe the flights of birds, the colours of wildflowers, the activity of squirrels, or the different canopies of trees, kids and parents can see their neighbourhood as an integral part of a greater natural world.
Embrace environmental stewardship
So how does the ecosystem relate to gardening? By taking on a gardening project as a family, parents can work together with their kids to show that gardening is about more than just growing food or having pretty flowers.
Research the best plants for attracting pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Find out which insects like to be near water features, or to hide in rock gardens. Learn the name of a tree at the park or a bird who visits the backyard, and study its unique characteristics.
By understanding how each of these aspects of nature connects with others, kids can begin to understand that their gardens are part of a larger ecosystem.
Lea Tran, horticultural therapist and plant spirit medicine healer in Guelph, Ontario, says that gardening helps kids feel a sense of purpose.
“They see that all beings have a role in the ecosystem. Everything is interconnected. Everything has a gift to share to keep the cycle of life going.”
To help kids understand the concept of an ecosystem, Tran suggests the following.
- Treat the act of caring for plants as a sacred, fun, interesting and important responsibility.
- Make it easy for the kids to check on the plants by establishing a routine and providing a journal for documenting and sketching their observations.
- Divide the garden into personal areas where kids have their own plants that they are responsible for so they can build a special relationship with them.
“Encourage kids to engage all of their senses when gardening,” says Tran. “By being involved in the planting of a family garden, children get exposed to a sense of wonder, awe, and magic.”
Explore by night
If the heat of the summer is keeping you inside, try enjoying the park or backyard at night. Watch for nighttime species such as bats and fireflies, or dig for worms in the compost and add them to your worked-up garden, where they will burrow and add nutrients to the soil.
Observe how the ecosystem looks completely different in the light of a full moon, and how certain senses, such as sound, have a stronger presence at night. Even simply lying on the ground looking up at the stars reminds kids and parents that everything is interconnected; without light, temperature changes, and precipitation, gardening would not be possible.
What to plant
To create interest in planting a garden, Tran says parents should consider planting big seeds that are easy to handle. Choose plants that produce big seedlings and grow quickly, so they won’t be mistaken for weeds. Kid-friendly choices include
Herbs are another great option to start from seedlings, including mints, lavender, thyme, and rosemary. If flowers are what your little one is interested in, try easy-growing calendula, zinnias, and marigolds.
Build a bee house
Making a bee house for sting-less Mason bees allows kids to see these pollinators of fruit trees up close. To make a box, drill holes in a block of wood, or fill a small wooden container with hollow plant stems to hang on the fence. Set the box out in early spring so the kids can watch the eggs hatch. Larvae will turn into cocoons over the summer, and in the following spring, the bees will emerge from cocoons as adults.
To find out more about Mason bees, speak to someone at your local gardening store.
Tuning in with nature
It has been well researched and documented that kids who get their hands dirty in the garden benefit in many ways, including improved learning outcomes. Inspired to eat what they grow, little gardeners also tend to make more positive food choices.
In 2013, the Back to Nature Network reviewed research focusing on the connection between green space and health. Reviews of more than 100 studies found that time spent in nature has a real effect on health outcomes: children who regularly learn and play in nature display less aggressive behaviour, more self-control, and better overall mental and physical health.
Fortunately, there is only one rule for gardening with children: keep it fun. The more time a family spends in the garden together, the more opportunities there will be to notice the hovering of a bee near the zinnias or the sneakiness of a chipmunk hiding sunflower seeds—all while munching on misshapen, yet delicious, homegrown carrots.