Common wisdom passed down generations says to wait until after the fishing opener here in Southern Minnesota to put your plants in the ground. We’re not completely out of the woods, necessarily–we have had snow in May–but it’s a fair assumption. The tulips and daffodils and other perennials have pushed through and brought color to the ground, and the lilacs and flowering trees are saturating the air with their delightful scents. This week we will see gardens continue to grow as people put plants and seedlings and seeds in the ground.
Gardening can be a great activity to do with kids, not only to get them outside and active, but also to teach them about the natural world and where their food comes from. Whether you have a big yard or just a few pots on a balcony, there are plenty of ways to involve children of all ages in the joys of gardening.
Gardening Tasks by Age
First, it’s important to keep in mind that different ages of children will be able to do different things in the garden. You probably shouldn’t trust a three-year-old with the garden tiller! Here are some ideas for age-appropriate activities:
Toddlers and preschoolers:
- Watering plants with a small watering can
- Digging in the dirt with a trowel or spoon
- Helping to plant seeds or seedlings
- Sorting seeds or small items by size or color
- Looking for insects or other small creatures in the garden
- Planting and caring for their own small garden plot or container garden
- Harvesting fruits and vegetables when they are ready
- Creating garden art or decorations with natural materials
- Learning about composting and helping to add kitchen scraps to the compost bin
- Identifying different types of plants and insects in the garden
Middle and high schoolers:
- Planning and designing a garden layout
- Building raised beds or other garden structures
- Starting plants from seed indoors
- Researching and experimenting with different gardening techniques
- Using gardening tools and machinery (with supervision)
Foster a Love for Gardening
No matter what age your children are, there are a few things you can do to help foster confidence and independence in them while they are gardening:
- Give them ownership
Let your kids take charge of their own garden plot or container, and allow them to make decisions about what they want to grow and how they want to care for it. Show them how, then let them go for it! If they forget to water it during a dry week, and it can’t be saved, that’s a great lesson on responsibility and loss. Allow them to start again.
- Provide guidance, not direction
Rather than telling your children what to do in the garden, give them suggestions and encourage them to think creatively about how to solve problems or make improvements. Allow them to ask you questions, but try not to just give them the answers. Lead them into the correct thinking by turning their questions back on them: “What do YOU think we can do about the drooping plant?” “Do YOU have ideas for keeping the bugs out?”
- Emphasize the process, not just the outcome
Gardening is a slow process that requires patience and persistence, so help your kids understand that it’s not just about the end result, but also about the journey of growing and learning. It’s a long time between seed and tomato or watermelon or pumpkin. Charts and books that show the growth process will help smaller kids visualize what the result will be. Countdowns for expectations of fruit, veggies, or flowers can also help: a tomato, for example, should go from seed to fruit in about 75 days. If planted this week, that’s the first week of August. (Seedlings instead of seeds will speed this up by a couple of weeks!)
- Encourage curiosity and exploration
Gardening is a great opportunity for kids to learn about science, nature, and the environment, so encourage them to ask questions and explore the garden in their own way. Utilize the library, bookstore, or plant nursery to check out some books or take a class. Letting children follow their curiosity–at all ages!–gives them confidence and helps develop imagination and creativity, all of which lead to positive emotions, lower stress levels, and a greater satisfaction in learning.
By involving your kids in gardening, you can not only create a fun and rewarding activity for the whole family, but also teach them important life skills and foster a love of nature that can last a lifetime.
Not Yet a Gardener Yourself?
If you’ve never gardened, it’s not too late to start! Learn WITH your children. Older kids thrive when teaching others something, so it’s an opportunity for them to take the lead and tell YOU what to do for once! Lots of resources exist online to get started.
And if gardening is just not possible for you this year–for any reason–bring those children down to the Museum to enjoy our gardens. The Dotson Back 40 not only has an expansive lawn area to run and play and build, it has vegetable, fruit, and flower plants growing all season long. Children are encouraged to explore and take part in all of our exhibits. See you in the garden!