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Encourage your children’s appreciation of the natural world by involving them in growing plants as soon as they can dig in the dirt.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted May 19, 2016

Child in garden

The simple act of caring for a little plot of earth can help develop a child’s sense of environmental stewardship. If you’re already a gardener, you’re likely including your children in your garden projects. If you’re not, consider getting a few pots or setting aside a small area in your yard where even very young children can experiment and experience the wonders of growing their own flowers and food.

Why it’s so important to get kids gardening:

  • Helps children develop a sense of responsibility for the environment
  • Contributes food to the family
  • Teaches about sharing with friends and neighbors
  • Shows a child where food comes from
  • Helps a child appreciate the work that goes into growing food
  • Provides hands-on witnessing of the web of life in action
  • Provides the health benefits of exposure to soil microbes
  • Encourages a taste for vegetables that they’re more likely to eat because they grew them themselves
  • Illustrates how to plan and see projects through

Gardening Ages and Stages

Child in garden
Even the youngest children can get involved in gardening, whether it’s planting, digging, watering or weeding. My eldest child kept me company during spring planting when she was seven months old. As a toddler, she absolutely loved helping poke in our first pea seeds. Every season, we go out together and prepare the soil with our trowels and talk about what’s growing and what we most look forward to eating. Her little sister joined in the fun at a few months old, watching us from her baby blanket as we worked. Now any day it’s nice out, my younger garden helper asks if we can go do some “gardnin.”

As kids get older, they start noticing natural processes and asking insightful questions about how things grow, why bugs destroy some of the crops, why we might need a fence to keep out hungry bunnies. The yard becomes a natural classroom where they can exercise their curiosity, learn about science, and develop a sense of responsibility for the planet they live on.

Older kids can get involved in garden planning and management. Invite them to weigh in as you flip through seed catalogs, check what seeds you have in storage, and sketch out the season’s plan. My cat-obsessed kindergartener likes to draw felines standing guard against our resident groundhog and list what crops neighborhood kitties might enjoy while I plot out our garden boxes.

Even as she imagines her cat-filled garden, I see that she’s picked up a lot about plant names and their habits, so she explains in one picture with tulips that it’s early in the season, and another with strawberries (which apparently cats just love) that it’s later. Another picture includes some of our more aggressive weeds trying to take over the cats’ yard. This season or next she can help me decide where different plants belong, as I teach her more about spacing, rotation, and shade.

Don’t underestimate what small children can do in the garden. A toddler younger than two can easily help plant larger seeds and cover them with soil, and there is nothing more fun for kids this age than watering. (Just prepare to get watered yourself!) It’ll take awhile for kids to appreciate all the time we gardeners spend waiting for seeds to germinate and plants to mature, but that developing understanding is part of the fun.

Black and white photo of child in garden

Some tasks your little gardeners can help with at different ages:

Beginners (ages 3 and younger):

  • Helping dig in beds to prepare soil for planting
  • Placing larger seeds (peas and beans) in holes adult makes
  • Choosing a few seed types
  • Watering
  • Picking (and eating) easy-to-harvest veggies and fruit like strawberries and cherry tomatoes

Budding Gardeners (ages 3-6) — all of the above plus:

  • Poking holes for seeds — give them something they can use to measure space between holes; younger kids will need more supervision
  • Planting smaller seeds
  • Pulling weeds — teach them what a couple easy-to-identify weeds look like and let them focus on those
  • Harvesting
  • Helping select seeds and plan garden

Young Garden Experts (age 6 and up) — all of the above plus:

  • Planning their own small garden
  • Preparing the soil
  • Putting the garden to bed at the end of the season

These projects are based on slowly building experience starting from a very young age. If your 8-year-old has never gardened before, you’ll want to start with some of the more basic tasks, but they will likely be ready for more quite quickly. As your young gardeners get more practiced, they can do more of these tasks with progressively less adult supervision. Prepare to be impressed as they gain competence!

Set Kids Up for Success (But Let Them Learn from Failures)

Children harvesting veggies
To help kids get the most enjoyment from their efforts, set the stage for their garden experiments to thrive.

  • Choose a spot for the kids’ gardens that gets plenty of sun and has good soil. Try to give each child their own area or planter
  • Give them well-made tools, like sturdy shovels and a pair of gloves made for small hands
  • Choose plants that grow quickly, aren’t too fussy or prone to pest damage, and have a fun factor, like flowers or fruits your kids will love (suggestions below)
  • Help out behind the scenes, whether it’s picking slugs or squash bugs or applying diatomaceous earth

The most careful gardeners have to learn to deal with the inevitable garden fails, from the groundhog massacre of broccoli crops to insect invasions that wipe out the beloved groundcherries (that one still hurts). Teach about the methods gardeners use to nurture and protect their plants, like companion planting, hand-removal of pests, application of compost, and non-toxic pest-control options.

Some Kid-Friendly Plants

  • Snap peas: It’s so much fun to watch vines grow, and sugar snaps are one of the best harvest-your-own-snack crops for little ones. Try successive plantings to extend the season of this kid favorite.
  • Cherry tomatoes: Choose a prolific super-sweet variety like Sungold, Galina, Sweet 100s or Matt’s Wild Cherry for a long season of summer snacking.
  • Groundcherries: Hunting for these little packages is a favorite pastime of my garden helpers, who happily unwrap them for a sweet treat.
  • Bush beans: Another great pick-your-own snack. I’m a fan of Dragon’s Tongue bush beans, which have appealing purple and white marks and are wonderful for fresh eating. Purple and yellow beans are also popular with my kids, who happily chomp them right off the plant.
  • Pole beans for drying: Shelling the dry bean pods is a favorite garden activity at the end of the season. And beans that don’t make the cut for winter soups make terrific playthings. My three-year-old has spent countless hours with our scarlet runner beans seconds sorting, stirring, and creating inventive concoctions like bean ice cream and cupcakes, which she serves to her stuffed animals.
    Read our article: How to Dry and Store Scarlett Runner Beans
  • Lettuces and spinach: They grow fast, can be harvested quickly, and help kids develop a taste for salads. Plant successively to extend the harvest.
  • Potatoes: Mounding soil is a great garden chore for bigger kids, and potato treasure hunts are fun for grown ups as well as kids. Potatoes can be grown in bags or bins if you can’t spare the garden space. Try an unusual variety, like purple, which kids may not have seen before.
  • White salad turnips: Like radishes, salad turnips grow quickly, but they lack the bite that turns some kids off radishes. They’re delicious eaten whole or sliced into salad.
  • Flowers: You can direct-seed many different varieties of flowers, including marigolds, sunflowers and nasturtiums. Kids enjoy their beauty and they can help you teach about the role of flowers in attracting pollinators and deterring pests.

Involve kids in the process of picking out seeds and plants. Pre-select varieties that are easy to grow, but let them make some of the decisions about which of those to plant, and they’ll be more invested. Bigger kids can of course handle more choice and can take on more challenging crops.

Other Tips for Making Family Gardening Fun and Educational

Starter plants
Support your young scientist. Get a magnifying glass for studying plant growth and insect activities. Explain how bugs work in your local ecosystems. If you don’t know, get a good book and learn together!

Teach them to identify weeds. You’ll be glad you have a helper to keep up with the weeding for years to come. (You can also teach older kids which weeds are edible and let them experience some of the fun of foraging — and the importance of checking with an adult before eating things they find.)

Document their work. Take pictures of progress so kids can appreciate how much their plants have grown over the season. Looking back over these pictures is a great wintertime activity as you start planning the next season’s garden.

Play up garden playtime
. Gardening can be a lot of work, and kids will take great satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor, proudly sharing a tomato harvest with the family or snacking on the snap peas they grew themselves. But as with so many things with very young kids, the line between work and play is a fine one. Adding in some running through the sprinkler or building fairy houses with found objects can make some of your garden time more clearly about just plain fun.

Further Resources

Gardening with Children
University of Illinois Extension My First Garden
Kindergarden
Teaching My Child How to Garden: Getting Started
Teaching My Child How to Garden: Summer

Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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