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Gardening with Children

"In today's world, we all need to get outside and grow and do these things together, and a garden is the best place to teach our children about healthy food choices and to also find joy."
—Emily Murphy, Grow What You Love

Girl Watering FlowersThe joy of discovery lights up the world. It's a special delight to see children discovering their environment. We may have explained to them how plants grow or where carrots come from, taking for granted that they will connect this knowledge to the living plants around them. But, to truly teach children about the world in which they live, there's nothing like learning from the ground up - digging in the dirt, planting seeds, and growing things you can eat.

As parents, we can prepare hands-on projects that help children learn about the nature that surrounds them. It's important for them to experience how things grow and change. We so often only explain verbally - rather than showing them directly. Seeing is believing.

"Let's See What Happens"

Stop for a moment and look for the miracles of spring growth. The changing angle of the sun has already coaxed the snowdrop and crocus to peek through the snow. Look closely for buds forming on trees and bushes. The bright yellow-green color of first growth appears in fields and forests. Share these observations with your children.

What happens underground is mysterious and exciting! Help children witness the miracle of sprouting. Most plants begin as seeds. Even if you eventually plant seedlings purchased from the garden center, children like to watch seeds sprout. Sprouting can be an experimental project. Even though it's tempting to make predictions, wait curiously with your children and say, "Let's see what happens." It's fun to watch your child's amazement when the roots and leaves appear. Here are a few ideas to help you create your own seed-planting experiment:

  • Place a few lima beans, peas, or fava beans between blotter paper and the glass sides of a jar. Fill the jar with enough water to keep the blotter paper damp. Place the jar in a warm location and watch the seeds sprout over the next few days.
  • Sprout a seed in a clear plastic bag with a damp ball of cotton. You can tape the bags onto a sunny window and watch the sprouts and roots emerge. Each bag could hold a different kind of seed. Label the bags in order to compare the growth of each type.
  • Make a plant journal to track the progress of the growing seeds. Children can record the growth in pictures or words.

Garden In a Pot - Or Make a Pot

There's no need to take on a big garden project. You can grow a plant in a pot on the windowsill. You don't even have to buy seeds or soil. You can put an avocado pit in a jar of water, suspending it with toothpicks on the rim of the jar so the bottom of the pit is covered with water. Or you can put half of a potato in a shallow saucer of water - to keep it moist and watch the "eyes" sprout.

Seedlings can be started inside and planted in the garden later. If you want to tackle more, try making your own pots for starting seeds using newspaper and a pot-making kit. For convenience, potting soil is often found at the grocery or drug store. Or you can buy seedlings at the garden center, guaranteeing a sure start. Most importantly, keep it simple and think it through to be sure that any project is easy for both you and your child.

All Kinds of Gardens

Boy Digging in GardenWhether you have a garden or are using outdoor planters or indoor pots, preparing the soil is the first step, with lots of options for children to participate. Here are a few ideas:

  • Demonstrate how to use the tools. Children love to cultivate with child-sized shovels, rakes, or trowels. (You might do some initial cultivation and soil enrichment so that it isn't too hard for the children to turn over the soil.)
  • Discuss which plants to place where and why - where the sunshine is, how big the plant will grow, etc.
  • Dig holes for the seedlings. Show your child how to remove the seedling from the pot, plant it carefully and securely, walk around the plants, and then water with a gentle spray from the watering can. (Hoses are difficult for young children to control.)
  • With limited space, indoor planting might include mixing soil, planting the seedling, and then placing the pots in several locations.
  • Label the plants with signs and pictures. Children might use the seed packets or make drawings of the plants. These could be attached to tongue depressors or dowel sticks.

More than Just Gardening

Children gain so much from even the smallest gardening project. They not only learn how plants grow and where food and flowers come from, but also how to be responsible. Through gardening, they gain a new understanding of the natural world and begin to see how much work it takes to provide food. Children might even begin to eat healthier, since they're often more willing to taste and cook what they have grown.

Gardening gets children outside, and their natural curiosity keeps them going out to tend and check on their plants. They also gain a sense of competence, having succeeded in growing things themselves. Best of all, this is a family activity that can provide nourishment for all as we grow together.

"Teach the children. ... Show them daisies and pale hepatica. ... Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit."
—Mary Oliver, Upstream

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2018

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