The garden is a place of make believe and magic. It’s filled with hope and success, and so many opportunities to learn. A parent that welcomes their child to the garden opens the door to connection and love. Children in the garden experience wonder and joy and an immense sense of accomplishment.
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However many years she lived, Mary always felt that ‘she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow’.Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Adults and children look at gardening differently, adults want things just so, and children want things to just grow. Gardening with children can be magical or stressful, depending on how much freedom you give them. When we invite children into the garden, it’s important to fully invite them, at least to a small area. Invite them in and let them plant, let them dig, let them explore. In the beginning there may not be any ‘success’ but then success is all in how you define it.
Success: A Definition
Success: An accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
Adults and children often look at success from different view points. Adults have an aim, a specific goal, in mind and judge their success on whether they hit that aim. Children define success based on whether they accomplish their purpose. Their purpose in the garden shifts as they grow older.
Toddler in the Garden
A toddler loves to be one with the earth. And water. And seeds. And flowers. To a toddler gardening is a multi sensory, full body experience. The most successful way to have a toddler in the garden is to give them as many opportunities to experience different aspects of gardening at their own pace.
A toddler is successful when they explore as much as possible. They are often happy whether a plant grows or not.
- Provide different types of dirt for a toddler to play with. Some sand, some clay, some garden soil.
- Have a different pot or area for each type. Be open to allowing your toddler to mix and match as much as they please. It’s amazing what you discover about soil and it’s ability to grow when you mix soil, sand and clay together.
- Have different tools on hand. I’ve found some exceptional child sized hand tools at Chapters. These aren’t as sturdy as adult tools, but they’re the perfect size for small children and work well up until about age 7.
- Toddlers love to water their garden. Providing plants that can withstand a lot of water, and love, helps foster a sense of pride and accomplishment. I like to give toddlers spider plants to tend. These super hardy plants do well with either a lot of attention, or no attention at all. As an added bonus they thrive in pots so you can bring them indoors for the winter.
- Peas, beans, and carrots are good vegetables to let a toddler grow from seed. They usually have a high germination rate. Time from first sprout to harvest is also fairly short, which works perfect for toddlers.
- My children all loved herbs like mint and oregano because they could easily make ‘salads’ every day. They grew lettuce with their herbs and I had cherry tomatoes close by so they could easily make their own snack each day.
Toddlers feel loved when they know you’re there to help them, but also give them freedom to explore. Clearly expressing and maintaining boundaries while giving them space to explore reinforces your love and connection.
Preschoolers In The Garden
Like toddlers, preschoolers love to explore the garden with every sense. They’ve developed a greater sense of control and understanding about cause and effect. They also have better motor control so they can plant more successfully.
A preschooler is successful if they are in the garden. A plant is important to them, but after a few tears are usually okay if it dies.
- Preschoolers want results a lot more than toddlers. They still want the free play water and dirt, but they also want a plant at the end of the season.
- Preschoolers often like flowers. I gave my preschoolers edible flowers like nasturtiums or pansies. These flowers along with herbs and lettuce made for beautiful gardens and colourful snacks each day.
- Providing preschoolers with planter gardens helps them clearly see where their garden is, and decreases the number of times you find your plants loved too much.
- Preschoolers love having their own tools and their own gloves.
Preschoolers want to feel accomplished. They feel this best when you acknowledge the work they’re putting in and also help them see the results of their work.
Elementary Aged Children In The Garden
Elementary aged children have a great sense of independence. This is very evident in the garden. They’re mature enough to stat their own seeds indoors, tend to them, and plant them with minimal help or guidance. But they really love it when you work with them.
An elementary aged child wants a plant to grow and thrive. Even better if they don’t need to do any weeding.
- Give them a certain amount of space. Tell them how many tall plants they can choose, how many medium, and how many short they have space for and they’ll surprise you with what they come up with.
- Annuals still work well for elementary age children. They love picking new plants each year (who doesn’t!!).
- I’ve found creating a visual chart with a watering schedule and information like bloom time really helps them answer their own questions such as, “When will my plant get flowers?”
Elementary aged children want to know you’re there with them, and that you’re not going to take over from them. When you let them know you se how carefully they planted their plants, they feel loved. Saying, “I could see how slowly and carefully you worked. I can tell this is important to you.” lets them know you notice their effort and that your love isn’t hinged on the outcome.
Older Children In The Garden
The older the child, the less input they need. Give them a budget and help them figure out how to stick to it while still getting what they want for their garden. Older children may still need help learning things like how to deadhead or how to harvest without hurting the plant. They want you to guide them, but over all let them alone.
An older child is successful if they understood what they were doing, did it mostly well, and had a plant thrive through the year. They want to do all the things. The younger children still don’t like weeding. (I still don’t like weeding…)
I find if something goes wrong, the best response is to ask questions.
- What do you wish would have happened?
- What went wrong?
- How might we figure out what we could do differently next time?
- Share a time when you made a similar mistake.
- Hug your child and acknowledge the hurt we feel when a plant doesn’t do well.
Connecting with an older child is more about being with them than words being used. But it still feels nice to have someone acknowledge the attention to detail, the care that went into planting or weeding. Connecting with an older child or teen is really about being there to hold them when it doesn’t work and congratulate them when it does.
Maintaining A Sense Of Wonder
Day to day life bogs us down. We forget the wonder of gardening, the joy of seeing a plant thrive, and the sorrow when it dies. For children these emotions and experiences are still so big and powerful. To them it’s amazing when a little sprout pops out of the soil, They want to tend that sprout, love it, and make it grow.
Understanding the enormity of their emotion and how deeply they care can help us shift our words and actions to better support them in their gardening adventure.
I’d love to hear how you invite your children into the garden. Please leave a comment below so we can share our ideas with the rest of our community!