Gardeners are often eager to share our passion for planting with the kids in our lives. Aside from it simply being a fun and educational activity for all ages, an ever-growing crop of research confirms what we already knew: Gardening is good for the mind, body and soul.
Like other forms of nature therapy, gardening decreases stress by increasing our connection to the natural world around us. It prompts kids to tune in to the changing seasons and weather conditions, teaches mindfulness and promotes physical activity and healthy eating. Add to that the development of confidence, a strong work ethic, and the ability to accept that some things are beyond our control, and it’s no surprise that growing things can result in a growth mindset!
Here are a few tips to help you get started down the right [garden] path.
Exploration and Observation: Toddlers and Preschoolers
Kids under the age of 5 are well-known for their seemingly endless curiosity and a willingness to try just about anything, so you have that going for you right off the bat. They also have famously short attention spans, though, so just as you would with any activity involving this age group, introduce gardening in short spurts and bake lots of flexibility and fun into your plans. Start your gardening project with well-rested, well-fed kids, and bring along a snack or two. If you let them guide the process whenever possible and avoid forcing it or making it a chore, their little thumbs will be green in no time.
The ultimate sensory activity, gardening can capture and hold the attention of developing minds like few other pursuits. Boredom is unlikely to set in when there’s so much to take in: the squishy texture of the soil, the warmth of the sun overhead, the cool drops of water from the sprinkler, the songs of birds and insects, the brilliance of multicolored blooms and the patterns in variegated leaves. The earthy smells of fresh air, flowers, dirt and grass. But most of all, the tastes! It’s the perfect time in any young life to encourage an affinity for fresh veggies, and most children agree the best part of gardening is preparing — or helping you prepare — a kid-friendly recipe using the produce.
Children at this age are often thrilled to have their own little plot where they can dig to their hearts’ content and feel a sense of independence and accomplishment over the fruits of their labor. This is the perfect time to add a toad house (aka a “toad abode”), and to chat about the basics of plant life cycles.
Let them mark their garden plot with a homemade sign and watch them beam with pride!
Digging Deeper: Elementary Age
School-age kids are often ready for a little more autonomy in the garden, but it’s still smart to stick to the easier crops at first, such as potatoes, radishes and leafy greens. Beanstalks are a favorite as well, due to their fairy-tale connection and speedy growth. When ordering seeds, you may even come across pre-packaged, kid-friendly mixes.
As their skill and comprehension levels develop, consider slightly more advanced cultivation practices such as companion planting or composting. Try a three sisters garden, or attract pollinators and other beneficial bugs and watch them at work, bringing balance to the little ecosystem you create. You can even take it a step further and make your plot a Certified Wildlife Habitat Program.
At this age, many of the lessons you covered previously can be revisited in greater depth. Add more complicated concepts such as photosynthesis or the microbial magic that takes place under the soil’s surface. Many heirloom vegetables come with the BOGO benefit of a rich history that kids will find interesting — try “digging up” the origins of a few interesting varieties, and preparing them the way they were historically eaten, as author William Woys Weaver discusses in this collection of articles.
An excellent way for kids ages 7 and older to explore gardening, cooking, horticulture, wildlife biology and ecology is through their local 4-H club. At the end of each summer, they can enter their hard-earned results in the county fair and potentially later in Hutchinson at the Kansas State Fair.
Setting Gardening Goals: Teens
When it comes to teens, you can create enthusiasm by … well … OK, yeah — good luck with that. Aside from bribery or threatening to change the wifi password, we got nothin’. GrowVeg.com, however, recommends appealing to their competitive side by challenging them to bring home top honors from the fair or take part in a “biggest pumpkin” competition. On the upside, if you’ve instilled a love of gardening early, there’s at least a chance they’ll still tolerate your presence in the next row over.
‘Grow’ For It!
Ready to get growing? K-State Research and Extension specialists can offer additional ideas and advice and may be able to connect you with workshops or other educational resources in your area. Some counties even employ an agent that specializes in youth gardening.
Learn more: Powell Gardens Educational Video Series.