Green Thumbs And Little Ones

By Eric Christensen

February 12, 2014 5 min read

Many adults love gardening. They enjoy the outdoors, the peace and the produce. But children view gardening differently: Some view the dirt and bugs as gross, while others think the long timeline and chore-like tasks are boring. But by making a few changes, adults can make gardening fun and educational for children.

Julia Parker-Dickerson, the Youth Education Program Director at the National Gardening Association, says the key is to "let children express their ideas, to empower them, and to let them create and envision something." Anne Gibson, the author of the "SOW SIMPLE Guide to Growing an Abundant Edible Organic Garden" and the website TheMicroGardener.com, agrees, saying, "One of the most important keys to success with a child's garden is allowing them to take ownership."

Parker-Dickerson says one of the best ways to give children ownership of the garden is to "work with a child to help plan the garden. ... Look through seed catalogs or magazines with them. Let the child do some artwork to envision a garden." Gibson suggests incorporating color and creativity. "Let children choose their own pot, paint or decorate it or make a sign to brighten up their special space. A favorite toy they no longer use may make a perfect repurposed shallow garden bed." Gibson also points out that children are also more likely to use child-sized tools.

Try planting a rainbow of colors and mixing flowers with produce. Parker-Dickerson says, "Planting a rainbow of vegetables and fruits can help a child eat a variety of foods, or at least give them an opportunity to try them out. Children are far more likely to eat produce they grow themselves." Gibson says, "Flowers on the other hand add color, fragrance, beauty and bring in pollinating insects, like bees that help increase the yield of food crops, and predator insects that reduce pests." Parker-Dickerson adds, "This gives children a better understanding of an ecosystem as a whole. They get to see in one place that things are dependent on one another. ... Respect for life is a hugely valuable lesson."

Planning and planting are very exciting, but children can often grow bored with gardening before harvesting. Gibson suggests incorporating bean sprouts because "They are so easy to grow and mature in a matter of days." Similarly, "Include cut-and-come again lettuces, radishes, beans and peas, rainbow chard, herbs (especially lemon balm and mint) and edible flowers." Additionally, use "succession planting" (sowing small amounts often) to help children maintain interest.

Parker-Dickerson says, "If a child has a particular job in the garden, then they often feel a sense of ownership and obligation. The garden is theirs and the consequences are obvious." But Gibson warns against referring to these tasks as jobs or work. Instead, create games to encourage consistency and conversation. Ask children how many weeds did they pulled or how many pollinators they spotted. Encourage them to name their plants, and then ask about those plants by name. Post a checklist on the refrigerator. Gibson also reminds parents, "Enthusiasm and praise for a job well done work wonders."

Finally, plan for success, but do not worry about mistakes or failure. Gibson warns against using "out-of-date seeds or unhealthy seedlings," and she adds, "Know what to plant when in your climate zone so the children enjoy the experience and have the best chance of success." But if things go wrong, Parker-Dickerson suggests using it as a life lesson. "If you don't know the answer to a question, it's completely OK, and best to admit, that you don't know. If you're working with a child, say, 'Let's work together.'" Take your child to a library or garden center and letting him or her ask the questions. "Empower them to talk to somebody about plants." The key, Parker-Dickerson says is "staying positive and staying curious."

By using this tips, gardening can be a fun way for children learn. Gibson says, "A garden -- no matter how small -- can help children connect with nature, stimulate their imagination, learn new skills, become more observant and patient and have an appreciation for all sorts of creatures." Parker-Dickerson says these are all "fundamental lessons for a human being." With that in mind, fragrant flowers and fresh fruits and vegetables are a bonus.

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