Plant a Garden, Help a Child Grow

One of the best things you may ever cultivate in your yard is a gardener; here are 16 tips for developing your child’s green thumb and appreciation of nature

08-01-2004 // Kelly L. Senser

Teach Children to Garden - Mother and Child Mulching 

Photo: © THUY SENSER

MY HUSBAND AND I learned early on in parenthood not to underestimate our daughter. Still, she manages to surprise us from time to time. Take the afternoon last spring when we tackled the chore of reducing our lawn, replacing yards of turf with a native plant bed. We expected our then two-year-old to play about us as we labored, but she dug right in—literally. For each mat of sod we pulled up, her little hands yanked a clump. For each shovelful of topsoil we emptied into our wheelbarrow, she added a scoop. All day long we marveled at her determination to keep pace.

“Children want to do what their parents and grandparents are doing,” says Claudia Neely, a gardening enthusiast whose three kids helped to create a wildlife habitat in the family’s Pittsburgh backyard. Being a good role model requires dedication on the part of green-thumbed adults, but there are inherent rewards in providing kids with positive outdoor experiences.

“More than just plants grow out of helping a child tend a garden,” says Judy Sedbrook, a Denver-based master gardener with the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. “Gardening gives children a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, and it enables them to learn about the environment.” It also helps them learn about the importance of native plants and wildlife habitat. Following are some tips for making gardening with kids an educational, safe and enjoyable experience for all:

GETTING STARTED

  • Visit places where plants thrive, such as nurseries, arboretums or your neighbor’s flower patch. As children explore, talk with them about the different sun, soil and water requirements of healthy vegetation.

  • Survey the natural treasures in your own backyard—birds, bees, blossoms. Children are notably wide-eyed and open to new discoveries. Cultivate their curiosity.

  • Identify a spot on your property for a children’s garden, inviting kids to take part in its selection. Sedbrook recommends a small plot of land—no wider than a yardstick—that can be easily managed. Other good options include window boxes or containers.

  • Have your soil tested for lead, as children are highly susceptible to poisoning. If its presence is confirmed, focus on container gardening or consider building a raised bed and filling it with loam you purchase.

  • Sow fast-germinating seeds or introduce transplants that are quick to flower or fruit. (Children are typically eager to see the results of their labor.) Be sure to include kids in the plant selection process.

  • Choose plants that will excite the senses. Examples include eye-catching sunflowers, fragrant herbs and fuzzy ornamental grasses such as big and little bluestem.

  • Woo wildlife, which will wow your kids, by focusing on perennials that are native to your microclimate. Explain to your children why native plants provide the best overall food sources for backyard birds and other animals, and that they also require less moisture and are naturally resistant to local plant diseases and pests.

GETTING DIRTY

  • Add other wildlife-attracting elements to your habitat: water, shelter and places to raise young. Neely says her children had a blast last summer helping to build toad homes, brush piles, a pond and a bat house.

  • Provide kid-sized tools and teach young gardeners how to use them safely. Equipment can be found in most garden stores, but don’t overlook at-home options such as spoons and measuring cups.

  • Eliminate use of toxic chemical fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides. When necessary, use natural alternatives instead.

  • Practice good hygiene. When it comes to gardening, getting dirty is half the fun for children. Make sure they wash up after working in the soil, as it can contain a variety of contaminants, including chemicals and harmful bacteria.

  • Encourage children to do a share of all the garden chores but be mindful of their limits. “Give help as needed,” says Mary Anne Rennebohm, co-owner of Heard Gardens in West Des Moines, Iowa. “But remember the more that kids do, the more they will feel that the garden is truly theirs.”

TEACHING LESSONS

  • Visit the garden with your kids every day to make sure you don’t miss its rewards: flowers opening, butterflies sipping nectar, ladybugs eating aphids.

  • Take advantage of teaching moments. If you uncover a pill bug on the ground, for instance, explain that its roly-poly posture is a means of defense. If your children pose questions you can’t address, seek out the answers together. A visit to the library or Internet might be part of the journey to discovery.

  • Encourage children to share their garden with friends and family. Giving tours reinforces their ownership of it and helps instill a sense of pride.

  • Invite reflections of each day’s gardening experiences: Talk about what went on, what was seen and so on. If time permits, have kids draft notes in a journal, draw a picture or take photographs. All of these actions serve to reinforce what was learned—and enjoyed.

Associate Editor Kelly L. Senser wrote about  backyard water conservation in the June/July 2004 issue of National Wildlife.

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