By Michael Caduto
Gardening is a living process—a part of the natural cycle. Each garden is a tiny ecosystem that will succeed if you watch and take your clues from the natural world. Do not worry about being a perfect gardener. Gardening does not have to be complicated and does not require you to be an expert.
When gardening is viewed as a fun learning experience, it is a great way to connect children to their environment. What other activity includes so many things that children love— from playing in the dirt while planting seeds, to discovering worms, bugs, toads? And then, as the season progresses, children get to pick and eat the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
Tips for Gardening with Children
Children are natural gardeners at heart. They possess an instinctive enthusiasm for working with plants. There is little that needs to be done to adapt the day-to-day gardening tasks for children, but it is valuable to consider the approach to take when sharing the activities. Forms of gardening that are safe and satisfying to share with children include organic gardening, permaculture and no-till gardening. (These are the same kinds of non-polluting, environmentally safe and respectful practices used in Sustainable Woodstock’s community gardens.)
Help children to understand what they are seeing in the garden by encouraging them to ask questions such as who, what, when, where, how and why? What kinds of connections have they noticed between garden plants, animals, soil and so on? Read more about the subjects that interest children. Some good books to share include: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner, Easy Peasy: Gardening for Kids by Little Gestalten & Kirsten Bradley and Grow Your Soil! Harness the Power of the Soil Food Web to Create Your Best Garden Ever by Diane Miessler.
Children love cherry tomatoes. Nurturing the plants and waiting for the fruit to ripen fosters gardening skills and patience. Photo: Michael J. Caduto
Here are a few simple tips for gardening with children:
- Take one step at a time. Explain things clearly and simply and the experience will carry itself.
- Watch for the tasks that each child prefers doing. Encourage children to participate in each of the different gardening experiences to keep their interest, but allow them to do what they most enjoy whenever possible.
- Invite children to take charge of particular crops or parts of the garden to encourage responsible caring.
- Allow a reasonable amount of snacking from the garden and keep a variety of other healthy foods on hand for snack times.
- Allow children to mix short periods of work doing different tasks interspersed with playtime. Gardening is an organic experience that is more effective if children learn that it can also be fun.
- Allow for lots of beginners’ mistakes and approach them lightheartedly. Discuss how things could be handled better next time.
- Teach the children that a garden is an attempt to create a temporary natural community or ecosystem. Use the garden as a way of teaching about natural cycles, such as the water cycle, nutrient cycle, life cycle, gas cycle, lunar cycle and the cycles of night and day, the seasons and the years. During the gas cycle, for example, people exhale carbon dioxide which green plants need to grow. Green plants, in turn, give off the life-sustaining oxygen that animals breathe in.
- Use only natural fertilizers and methods for controlling pests and weeds. This is important for placing a high priority on the children’s health and for teaching wise Earth stewardship.
- Help children to see the garden as a learning laboratory, with lots of opportunities to experiment and observe results.
- Promote the idea that everyone can find their own approach to gardening—there is no one right way.
- Share in the sense of wonder, learning and adventure with the children.
Keeping A Garden Journal
Everyone can grow as a gardener simply by learning from what they are doing and what has been done in the past. Keeping a garden journal is one of the of the most fun and practical ways of doing this. Depending on their age, a child’s garden journal entries can range from simple drawings in pencil, crayon or watercolor, to notes about what they did in the garden that day and reflections on the experience.
Schedule quiet time at the end of each gardening experience for everyone to make an entry in their garden journal. Record the interesting and important things experienced that day. Be sure to include the date, weather and time of day of observations. Record the lessons learned in words, illustrations or photographs. This way, knowledge will grow from season-to season, and year-to-year.