Public schools are increasingly offering garden education programs for children. But for those of us with young kids (or grandkids) it’s important to remember learning to love the garden begins in babyhood when children gravitate toward the tactile experience of dirt in their hands and grass under their bare feet.
Maybe you’re thinking, “but I can’t even keep a cactus alive. How can I teach my kids to garden?” The great thing about early gardening education is that it really isn’t about actual gardening. It’s about observation and experimenting and taking time to just be outside. Whether we’re experienced farmers or repeat cactus killers, we all start with simple trial and error and observation. And, if we’re lucky, we never lose sight of these fundamentals.
Teaching my kids to garden didn’t start as a deliberate act. I needed to garden and they needed to be with me. But before you conjure up some idyllic image of us basking in an amazing backyard Eden of blooming flowers and grape vines, let me tell you what gardening with young kids is really like. As babies they destroyed many plants with their fat, little, grabby hands. They ate all manner of dirt and leaves; they picked flowers before they could bloom. They got so dirty I had to hose them off in the yard (which they loved). All the while, they became fearless explorers of the soil.
Along the way I started to see the garden through their eyes. Together we figured out a few common sense ideas for getting very young kids engaged with the garden.
1. Encourage them to touch. For babies and toddlers, everything is about the tactile experience. Allowing young children access to plants and dirt lets them know the outdoor world is to be loved, not feared. Obviously, you don’t want them eating poisonous flowers, crushing your precious seedlings, or playing in chemical-laden fertilizer. So pick and choose what they explore by giving them a big pan of dirt and a few seedlings they can handle. Let them touch the stringy roots and feel the soft petals. If they’re really young, give them a bowl full of snippets from edible plants—dill or cilantro, for example—and let them feel the texture in their hands and experiment with the taste on their fingers. If you don’t garden, just give them a big pan of dirt and some clover from the yard. Or when you’re preparing dinner let them pull back the cornsilk from an ear of corn and feel the silk in their hands. The point here is to make sure they know the garden is a place full of tastes and textures. And so what if you turn your back for a moment and they ruin a few plants? Sure, it’s not ideal. But don’t scold them, especially if they’re preverbal. They’re touching your precious plants because they’re fascinated by them. This is a good thing! A few crushed seedlings is an investment in their future.
2. Encourage them to get dirty. Getting dirty should be a huge part of childhood, not something that happens only under controlled conditions. Plenty of time spent with dirt helps kids develop an appreciation for its power and ubiquity in our lives. So allow them time and plenty of access to sink their hands in the soil. If you’ve got a small garden plot in your yard, block off a section that’s only for them. Give them a tiny spade and let them dig, dig dig. Give them a watering can (any object that holds water will do) and encourage them to fill it up and dump it in the dirt. Yes, it’ll be messy. But they will love it. Developing an early appreciation for dirt and worms is more important than all the clean clothes in all the world.
3. Pay attention to the rain. Kids start to notice rain at a young age and we should never downplay their interest in this mundane yet truly magical act of nature. When there’s a nice steady rain take a moment to sit outside and watch how it soaks into the soil. Wear a raincoat or maybe don’t. If you allow yourself to step into their world, chances are the drops will feel as magical to you as they do to them. If it’s a harsh, hard rain, sit on the front porch and put out a metal bucket, listening to water loudly hit the bottom. If you’re able, install a rain barrel to catch the water for the garden. The point here is to help young kids see the connection between rain and growth, giving them ample opportunities to appreciate the wildness and wholeness of a vast and interconnected world.
How do you teach your kids about growing? As part of my work at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action I’ll be co-presenting a workshop on gardening with kids at the first annual CANAS (Central Arkansas New Agrarian Society) Conference on April 26th. Go to: eventbrite.com/e/cultivating-community-1st-annual-spring-canas-conference-tickets for more information. I’d love to see you there and hear your ideas!l