We knew she was interested. As the winter subsided and sandbox season began, we watched Alice planning and preparing. She used her little wheelbarrow to move sand into a little plot she had chosen beside the swing set. She lined up small rocks in a neat little border as a fence “to keep the animals out.” Then she paid a visit to our gone-to-seed perennial herb garden, where I had carelessly left the dried seed heads on the oregano and parsley.

She gathered these seeds and scattered them in her sand plot, and returned on several subsequent days to water diligently with her little watering can, which she dipped into a forgotten bucket of rainwater.

Children make serious play out of whatever they see their caregivers take seriously. No one needs to teach preschoolers how to play “house”, though the details will vary depending on their keen observations of what families do together. If family members are gardening, this too will be re-enacted. Alice’s sand garden represented her fantasy of gardening, but I knew it wouldn’t reward her efforts. At four years old, she was ready for the real thing: the wonder and delight of helping plants grow and produce food and flowers.

Work or play?

A child’s perception of “work” often comes from an adult’s tone of voice. Alice is most likely to take up her watering can spontaneously when I’m watering too — when I prod her, it becomes a chore. My weeding inspires her to weed, and she’s able to distinguish between the baby lettuces and the prickly lettuce, because her mind is gobbling up knowledge like ripe Sungold tomatoes. For now, I try to keep nagging out of the garden, so she can develop a playful, loving relationship with growing her own food. When we talk about feeding the “baby” plants, her nurturing instincts come up naturally.

Small children, like many adults, can rebel against being taught the “right way.” Their willfulness can be maddening, but experimentation is the name of the game. I draw some lines to protect seeds and seedlings, because I want my daughter to learn that we depend on these plants for sustenance. But if Alice wants to design ant highways through the lettuce patch, or preserve a pet dandelion in the middle of her planter, that’s fine. While the hole she’s digging for a bean seed looks like it’s meant for a small apple tree, I understand that it’s about the journey, not the destination. While I settle the tomato starts in the next bed, I simply narrate what I’m doing: adding compost, planting deep to cover the stems to the first leaflets, watering at the base of the plant to keep the leaves dry. Later, I overhear her teaching her doll Nellie to plant, using the same words.

What to grow?

Rather than giving your child the run of the seed aisle, offer just a few choices which are all easy to grow, have a relatively short season, and offer a child-friendly reward. Kids like to choose, but too many options can overwhelm. Letting a child select a crop like bell peppers, which requires delicate and experienced handling, is a set-up for disappointment. Reliable kid favorites include bush beans, snap peas, leafy greens, and cherry tomato seedlings. A few flowers add beauty and the opportunity to watch pollinators at work. If you have the space, children love to dig for the buried treasure of potatoes: the perfect foundation to a special late-summer all-from-our-garden meal. In a raised bed, radishes grow fast and early, but carrots are often easier for young palates to love.

For her new planter, Alice picked out a few brightly colored petunia and marigold seedlings at the garden store, and we germinated snapdragons and nasturtiums in trays on the deck. A couple of lettuce starts meant she could start munching leaves in just a couple of weeks. The rest of the space we filled in with seeds — kale, mesclun, and chard — so she can witness the whole cycle, and feel like a proud mama coaxing them out of the ground. Before the lettuce is done, we’ll start bush bean seeds in dixie cups: when the sprouts leaf it will be time to pull the lettuce out and put the beans in their place. That way, her tiny garden will be busy and changing all summer long.

Helping or directing?

A feeling of ownership is a powerful thing. Last year, when Alice helped in the family garden, we got into power struggles about where she could dig or tromp through the newly planted beds. This year, we chose a separate kids’ planter. She loves the bright colors, and the containment means weeds won’t be much of an issue. The size is just right for her: it’s for discovering and snacking, not for filling our root cellar. Deciding what and where to plant in her own space seems to make it easier for her to cooperate with my requests in the “big garden” — or maybe we’re both growing up and learning to work together more flexibly! If you live in the city and garden in containers yourself, having her very own planter will make your child feel just like mommy or daddy. On the other hand, I want her to feel ownership in our family garden, and as she grows up I hope she’ll expand her realm to include more ambitious projects, like a strawberry bed or even asparagus, one of her favorites. Her excitement can be the motivator to get me moving on something I’ve always wanted to do but never found the time.

Tools of the trade

Your average big-box discount store offers colorful displays of kids’ gardening “tools”, but it’s no surprise when these prove useless and break immediately — the exception being mini watering cans, which are adequate and helpful. Quality small-size implements are available, but for most tasks, even a toddler can simply use an adult’s trowel to delight in the task of digging. A full-size wooden-handled hoe can be modified simply by shortening the handle. “Real” tools help a child feel effective and important. Yard sales and second-hand stores can yield all kinds of treasures, without the environmental burden of the shiny-but-disposable “brand new”. We have gotten a lot of mileage (literally) out of Alice’s little wooden wheelbarrow, which carries tigers and legos as often as stones and pulled weeds.

Curiosity knows no bounds

Before she was ready to handle delicate seedlings, or plant seeds any way except random scattering, Alice spent hours in the garden just exploring the dirt, making friends with the earthworms and unexpected grubs and millipedes she found there. This self-directed play involves rich internal development, and needs plenty of time. I try to let go of my teaching agenda, return to my own projects nearby, and come back to her planter when she said she was ready. She wants to know the name of every weed, and the “whys” of which plants and bugs are considered pests, and which we encourage. If you know a little about edible weeds, graze on some chickweed together, or make dandelion fritters for dinner. You are building the foundations for your child’s relationship with food, the wild kingdom, and the cycle of life. Gardening is big stuff!

Let go of perfection

In a family like ours, with two working parents, just getting some plants in the ground can be a major accomplishment. Our garden has weeds, and uneven edges, and though we’re working on building the soil, some beds still produce low yields. Once I get my daughter involved, I know some tender seedlings will get damaged, sprouts will pop up erratically (a six-inch gap here, three peas on top of one another there), and little bootprints will appear where I don’t want them. If I try to control her too tightly, she’ll head back inside to play where no one is hovering over her! When way too many kale seedlings blanketed her planter — a predictable result of over-enthusiastic sowing — she protested when I began briskly thinning them. She was right: it was her planter. We talked about the reasons for thinning, and the optimum spacing for healthy plants, and then with difficulty, I walked away to let her do it herself — or to become a teacher in her baby-kale preschool, which is what happened instead.

Vegetables are yummy!

Though Alice will often refuse a serving of braised greens at the dinner table, she loves chomping on a flowering kale plant, pretending to be a hungry fawn. She wants to know which weeds are edible and tries them all. In research about human taste preferences, one thing seems clear: repeated exposure reinforces “liking”. In other words, if my daughter playfully chews enough kale stalks over the summer, she has built an enjoyment of kale that will last her whole life. At the same time, connections develop in the brain: for instance, the taste of a lemony sorrel leaf is linked to other sensory memories of soft grass underfoot, warm sun on the shoulders, the scent of lilacs, and the peaceful bliss of an unstructured afternoon with mom and dad working nearby. If your child’s previous experience with vegetables centers around pressure at the dinner table to “earn” dessert by finishing their portion, now you have a chance to rewire those synapses. Miraculously, fresh vegetables can become a comfort food. Just let the kid lead the way.

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