Written by Kara M.
The temperatures are changing, sunsets are becoming earlier, and pumpkin spice is taking over the world. This can only mean one thing: Fall is upon us. With kids back in school, and families back into the busy swing of things, learning is at the forefront of our little ones’ minds. But learning doesn’t have to stop at the classroom door.
There are lots of practical ways to keep the learning going at home. One of our favorite places to learn and spend time together is in the garden. In addition to spending quality family time outdoors together, children of all ages can learn a variety of education and life lessons from being in nature, working with plants and among other living things.
If you have an outdoor home garden (or even if you’d like to start one), teaching children about how to grow and care for plants can be a fun bonding activity that doubles as a robust educational opportunity. Here are just a few ways to get your children interested, involved, and invested in gardening.
Visit a farm, garden, or farmer’s market
Before even embarking on your family’s own gardening journey, it may make sense to go see some experts at work. If there’s a local farm that’s open to the public, consider taking the family for a visit, and beginning to discuss the various plants and crops. See if anything sparks your child’s interest and use it as a jumping off point for an open discussion about how things are grown.
Alternately, you could bring your children to visit a community garden, or a friend’s garden to learn more about the growing and harvesting process. Even better, if you already have a garden at your home, take the family outside to explore it. Try to look at it and present it in a new and novel way – encourage the children to touch the dirt, smell the plants, look for insects, buds, or new plant growths, and listen for the sounds of nearby insects, birds, and other outdoor creatures.
In addition to (or instead of) this, another great place to learn about gardening and harvesting is at a farmer’s market. If you have school-aged children, it could be interesting and educational for them to ask questions of the different farmers at the market. If they’re younger, or on the shy side, a parental assist in this department could be helpful, but for older kids who feel comfortable, asking their own questions and engaging in conversation can help build confidence, interpersonal communication skills, and critical thinking.
Choose the Right Plants
The “right plant” might mean something different for different families. There’s no one correct answer here. When choosing crops to include in your family garden, each household needs to consider the amount of time, space, and attention they’re realistically able to devote to gardening. For some, this means an expansive backyard garden with beautiful, raised beds and an impressive variety of plants. For some, this means a window box of flowers. For some, this means a couple of pots or self-watering jars of herbs on the kitchen counter. The best part? Whatever you choose for your family is the right choice!
Whichever route you choose to take, there are two things that we think really help ensure the success of getting your children interested in gardening.
First, allow them to choose what they want to plant. This doesn’t necessarily mean letting them run wild in the gardening shop and picking anything they want. For small children, this could mean giving them a choice between two types of plants. Older children can have a bit more freedom to choose but be sure to do your research beforehand and try and steer them towards plants that have the best chance of thriving in your garden. The simple act of being able to choose tomatoes vs. cucumbers, or daisies vs. sunflowers can make a child feel empowered and give them a sense of responsibility and ownership over the project.
Second, we strongly suggest choosing plants that grow quickly. This is to help your children see the cause-and-effect process play out in a way that will hold their attention. It’s no fun (even for adults, sometimes!) to spend time planting, watering, fertilizing, and caring for a plant only to have to wait several weeks, or even months, to see any kind of results. For this reason, we suggest starting, whenever possible, with a young plant, rather than starting from seeds. Once your children have seen how the growing cycle works, they can “graduate” to seeds later on.
Some of our favorite fast-growing crops for kids include sunflowers, kale, and strawberries. (Notice anything about these three examples? They’re all edible. This is another great way to get kids interested in planting. Encourage them to plant crops that they will enjoy eating. This helps them understand the connection between what we plant in the ground and what shows up on our dinner plates, as well as gives them a sense of pride and satisfaction when they’re able to quite literally enjoy the fruits of their labors.)
Get the Right Tools
One of the exciting things about learning a new hobby, whether it’s a sport, an art form, or gardening, is learning about the tools specific to it. When children commit to growing something, it can be fun and exciting for them to get child-sized versions of the gardening tools they see you using. For school-aged and older children, it can be fun to allow them to choose a pair of gardening gloves. You can also get them age- and size-appropriate tools like a shovel, hoe, rake, or kneepads. Sunhats can be helpful for protecting little heads during outside gardening time, and a wheelbarrow can be an active break for busy kids who thrive on movement.
Teach the Right Habits
In addition to all of the science that can be learned from working in a garden (the growing process, the water cycle, and so much more!) gardening is also a great way to instill values like responsibility, reliability, and organization. If you are using shovels, hoes, or other tools to work on the garden, encourage children to properly clean their tools and put them away after use.
Once crops are planted, schedule a set time every week (or every few days) where the children (with parental help, if necessary) go outside to tend to the garden by watering, weeding, and harvesting. If you have multiple children, or if multiple family members are planting within the same garden, teaching children to mind their own crops while being careful around those belonging to others is a great way to instill a sense of respect others and their property.
Allow Kids to Be Kids
Let them stick their hands in the dirt. Show them insects, and allow them to pick up worms, bugs, and anything else they find in the soil (within reason). Encourage them to breathe in the fresh air and run around and play in the sunshine. If they want to name their plants, let them. If they want to sing to their plants, sing along!
Children are remarkable in their ability to see and experience the world in free, curious ways that many adults can’t. For this reason, let them take the lead. If they want to know what happens if a plant gets too much water, allow them to experiment and find out. If they want to know how the sun helps things grow, experiment with putting some plants in the shade and some in the sun to see what happens. If you go outside one day with the intention to plant some new crops, but all they want to do is dig holes in the soil, let them.
Yes, the ultimate goal is to have a healthy, flourishing plant at the end of your planting adventures, but like so many things in life, the journey is just as important as the destination. Let your children take the steering wheel, even if it means the plants might take longer to grow or won’t be as robust as they could be. Delighting in the outdoors and all it has to offer is reward enough in itself, no matter how the “finished” garden turns out.
Much like plants, children thrive and grow when they’re able to spend time outside in the sunshine and fresh air. Gardening is a way to get them outside, teach them about environmental science and life lessons, and bond as a family as you work together to grow something beautiful. Happy planting to you and your littlest Green Thumbs!
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