As the gardening season gets underway I’ve found a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment watching my granddaughter learn about plants and working in the garden. She’s about two and a half now and still loves to be outside with us. A version of this article ran about a year ago but having her with me in the garden this year has been so much fun I had to speak to the topic of gardening with children again. She is actually starting to learn about the plants and she still mimics our actions. She surprised me a few weeks ago when I took her out to the hothouse and she correctly identified the squash and cucumber plants. Even I have a hard time of that when they’re young. At first I thought she’d just memorized where the plants were but I move them around constantly to make the most of the lighting. She really was identifying the plants. She still picks up trash and puts it in the trash can and plant prunings from the floor. But I am still a little afraid to let her come out with me when I weed.
Starting kids in gardening can be a little stressful but it’s a whole lot more enjoyable, making the stress tolerable. Since our granddaughter enjoys being outside and doing what we are doing we’ve already got a leg up. I think that’s the best way to start kids in gardening. Get them outside, away from the TV and the other electronic distractions, and show them how much fun work can actually be. Working together toward a common goal builds a closeness that binds people in ways that are unique. Seeing the final result of your hard work is a blessing unto itself. For young children, just being with Mom and Dad or older siblings, builds good relationships with trust and personal satisfaction. Early in my military career we were taught Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with self-actualization being at the top. In the last couple of decades that has been taken to an extreme in the “everybody gets a ribbon” movement. In other words, we don’t want you to feel bad just because you didn’t win. Gardening is different. Watching things grow is winning and the child can be intimately involved. They can get their self-actualization from true accomplishment rather than a hollow compliment for doing nothing.
Even the youngest child can put a seed in the ground and brush dirt over it. The beauty of gardening is that you will “reap what you sow”. Linda tells the story of planting corn as a young girl. She got bored with putting one seed in the hole and started putting multiple seeds in. When she ran out of seeds too soon her mother knew what had happened. When the stalks came up the truth was made known. It obviously made an impression because all of our kids have heard the story. The point is that her mother let her make the mistake and had the patience to let her learn from it. That is important with young children. They may pull the flowers instead of the weeds but it won’t help to be angry. Just show them what needs to be pulled and what shouldn’t be pulled. Probably even multiple times. Frankly, I still pull up the wrong plant sometimes. Plants can be replaced. A child’s trust is irreplaceable.
Gardening can also teach patience and concentration. Two of the tools we can use to teach patience are a seed germination test and a sweet potato. A seed germination test is very simple. Take a double paper towel and moisten it. Make sure there are four layers that can be pulled back to check your seed. Place several seeds (beans or peas work well) in the middle between the two sides and place the paper towels in a zip lock bag, sealing it. Put it in a warm place and start checking it with your child after just a few days. Be very careful when you pull back the layers of paper towel so you don’t disturb the seeds. You’ll soon be able to see the root starting to form then the leaves. Patience is taught by having to wait for the process. Then you can teach some basic botany and science. You can plant these seeds once you’ve made your point and start another phase of education. A sweet potato takes less effort but can accomplish the same purpose. You’ll need a whole, fresh sweet potato, four toothpicks, and a glass jar. Standing the potato on end, put the four toothpicks in the potato spaced evenly just over halfway up. Place the larger portion of the potato in the jar and fill the jar with water. Place the jar with the potato on a warm sunny place and wait. Soon you’ll see stems start to form around the sweet potato with leaves coming on quickly. This is one you can just let grow. Just be sure to keep water in the jar. When I was little I had a sweet potato vine growing all the way around my bedroom walls. The vines will die once the nutrients in the potato have been used up, but by then you will have finished that part of the education and the enjoyment of watching the plant grow.
Concentration comes from being particular in what is being done in the garden. Whether it’s pulling weeds or planting seed it takes at least some level of concentration to do it right. Bulbs have to be planted in a certain direction or they won’t grow right. Seed depth is also important to successful growth. Then we want to keep the seeds or plants in certain places whether it’s in rows or a particular location in the flowerbed. All require concentration and deliberate action.
It’s never too young to start teaching plant identification. In fact, once a plant is identified and known to a very young child that memory is implanted forever. You’ll have to repeat yourself many times but it’s worth it. Just think of it as helping the child learn to talk. I’m constantly pointing out various objects to our granddaughter and telling her what they are. She catches on pretty quick and learns both the object and how to say the words. Then she’ll surprise me by repeating something that was said weeks before and not since. We may not think they are listening or understanding but I believe they understand more than we realize. They just may not show it.
A lot of the tools we use in the garden as adults aren’t appropriate for younger kids. They may be sharp or just too large for them. The toy companies have come to the rescue. There are toy gardening tools available that are just right for young kids and will get them used to working with tools. You may have to replace them a few times while the kids are learning but remember, they are toys not real tools. If your child gets serious about working with you the toys will break. Just replace them and move on. Soon enough they’ll be able to use the adult versions of the tools. And I still break them. By the way, don’t forget gloves as soon as they’ll keep them on.
Most of all, gardening gets our kids outside and away from all the electronic distractions that are so abundant. Exercise is important and gardening is great exercise, both physical and mental. And, as the commercial said, the relationships are priceless. Just being together is probably the most valuable result of gardening together. If you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It’s what we do.