There’s something very soothing about being outdoors, isn’t there? Feel the breeze on your face, listen to the rustling of the leaves in the trees, hear the birds chirp. Watch a squirrel run up and down the trees, stopping to watch you as he does. See the birds finding insects and bits of nesting material. Feel the warmth of the sun as you dig in the soil.
If you love gardening, you’ll naturally want your kids to love it as well. That will never happen unless you get them outside and away from those indoor screen distractions.
Here are some tips that will have your kids dragging you out into the garden:
1. Get ’em outside early
This should be easy, as kids usually love to be outside. When you’re working in the garden, encourage the kids to be at your side — starting as soon as they’re old enough to remain outdoors lying on a blanket (in the shade, with sunblock, of course).
You feel restored; your children will too. It’s the best cure there is to the crankiness caused by too much screen time and the hectic pace of modern life. Their IQs and creativity will blossom along with your seedlings.
So start ’em young and get ’em outside as soon as you can. “I started gardening with my Nana when I was big enough to carry a watering can (spilling 3/4 of the water before I got there),” says Mike Waterman, a garden researcher from Arizona. “But I loved it, and still do.”
2. Provide kid-size tools
Gardening will look a lot more like play and less like work if kids have their own toy tools. Literally everything that you’d use in the garden comes in kid size, from rakes and watering cans, to tractors! (See these affilate products in the Little Green Wheelbarrow store.)
Give your kids with their own harvest basket. “Better yet,” says Kate Oden, who’s written for us before about gardening with little ones, “ask them to play a matching game when harvesting. Prep the basket with one of each vegetable or fruit that’s ready to be picked and ask them to find more of the same.”
Kate also suggests letting them pick out their own gardening gloves. “Many kids love gear that looks just like mom’s or dad’s, and there’s the added benefit of cleaner fingernails,” Kate says.
3. Give kids their own garden
Offer your children a garden space that’s theirs alone. Help them plant seeds and seedlings, show them how to water and watch their plants grow. Talk about pride of ownership!
The size and construction of a kid-size garden can vary with the size and personality of your child gardener: from a pot on the porch to their own bedding space in the ground.
A good way to show young children what’s happening underground is with a “root viewer” that has one transparent side so you can see the roots growing.
The next step up might be a small raised bed in a convenient location. Make it a joint project to build a growing box with the kids. For the mechanically inclined child, using hand saws, drills and screwdrivers — under the supervision of a parent, of course — may really germinate their interest in gardening.
It doesn’t need to be complicated. This small raised bed is just 4 square feet, and uses just one 8-foot board. If muscles, tools and time are in short supply, have the home improvement store cut the boards. Then just add holes and a few screws and it’s ready to fill with potting soil. You can be planting just an hour after your trip to the store!
4. Choose kid-friendly plants
Invite your child to the garden center to select the plants that interest them, with some guidance.
• Flowers. Kids love pretty flowers, either on companion plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, or on vegetables in the flowering stage.
“Sometimes we adults neglect the flowering stage, but kids are charmed by the blossoms on peas, tomatoes, even lettuce that’s bolted in mid-summer,” says Kate Oden.
Sure, you wouldn’t want your child picking all the blooms (except from the lettuce), but select a few and help your child press the flowers, make homemade paper with them, or tape them into your child’s very own garden journal, Kate suggests.
Sunflowers — with their large seeds that are easy for little hands to keep hold of — are good for children since they germinate quickly. Try also colorful flowers like zinnias that will bring butterflies into the garden; watching the beauties flitter from flower to flower will fascinate even the youngest tot, and make the garden an enchanting place to spend time with the family.
• Peas make a wonderful first crop for a child. Their large seeds are easy to plant, and who can resist snacking on the sweet pods? Build a living teepee out of a few small branches or poles for them to grow upon. “As the summer progresses, the teepee becomes a shady play area that is all their own,” Kate says.
• Cherry tomatoes. Only sweet cherry tomatoes, says Mike. “I hated tomatoes as a kid, and refused to eat them, even as sauce on pasta, until I found out about cherry tomatoes. Kids will love the sweet flavor and seeing the hundreds of tomatoes growing.”
• Melons. There are so many different types of melons with unique appearances, excellent flavors, and even early varieties for short growing seasons. Melon plants can get massive — and fast. Even if the plants aren’t growing exceptionally well, kids will still notice their hard work paying off, says Mike.
• Potatoes. Who doesn’t want to hunt for buried treasure? After the potatoes are done growing, you and the kids get to collect. Sweet potatoes are a great option if you’re able to grow them, Mike suggests, because they’re sweet and can get much larger than regular potatoes.
5. Let ’em get dirty
Not all kids are contemplative enough for formal gardening. What can keep them outside with you, engaged in the soil?
Look for worms! Some kids are fascinated by the feel of wriggly critters in their hands. Digging around in the dirt is the perfect activity for many active children. It just feels good, doesn’t it? Just ensure they have their own designated place to root around in so they don’t dig up your vegetable garden!
Sneaky tip: You can probably entice a dirt-digger into the garden to harvest potatoes. Maybe they’ll notice the strawberries and squashes while they’re there. 🙂
For more tips on gardening with children, check out the Family Gardening section of kidsgardening.org, a resource of the National Gardening Association. Earth Easy also has suggestions for crops kids love to grow. They even have plans for building a little green wheelbarrow!
See also tips for novice gardeners from Rodale’s Organic Life.
Try some of these tips and send us your photos on Facebook!