This is a guest article from Kiran Talvadkar and Alice Sturm with Nature Play Parents.
Benefits of Gardening with Kids
From learning about the life cycle of plants, to getting physical activity and discovering new foods, the benefits of gardening with kids are endless. From low investment to higher investment, from toddlers to tweens, from a single tupperware with soil to an entire yard—you and your family can have fun, get outside, and have (at least one) delicious snack.
Benefit #1: Sensory play
The term “sensory play” has become a buzzword of sorts—but in our opinion, it lives up to the hype. Children need opportunities for multi-sensory activities that incorporate touch, smell, and taste, sight, and hearing. That’s where activities like gardening, with its rich array of smells, tastes, sounds, and sights, comes in. Let’s take TOUCH for example. Children, especially little ones, love to touch EVERYTHING. Have your child run their fingers through the soil. How does it feel? Is it rocky? Wet? Feel the leaves on the plants. Do they feel velvety or rough? How does it feel when you pull a weed from the ground?
Benefit #2: Build motor skills
Another benefit to gardening with kids: motor skill engagement! One of the earlier fine motor milestones that we often look for in a child’s development is the pincer grasp: the use of the thumb and one finger together to pick something up. Think about picking up seeds and planting them in soil. How do you pick up those seeds? Using the pincer grasp! We usually look for the pincer grasp around 9-10 months old, so you can practice this simple yet key movement with even the youngest of children. For older children, try digging with a trowel, pushing a shovel into the ground, squatting to plant seeds or pulling ripe vegetables. They can also pull the hose over to the garden bed and carry potted plants to the sink to give them water. There are so many ways to engage the muscles that are important for gross motor development.
Benefit #3: Learn about the plant life cycle
What better way to teach our children about the life cycle of plants than in-vivo? Many plants have a short life cycle and children can really experience and grasp the transition from seed to plant to flower to seed over a time period they understand. If you ask your child where they think food comes from, they’ll often give you answers like “the farm” or “the grocery store”. While these answers are accurate, gardening is an opportunity for them to learn more about the human labor and natural systems involved in food production.
Check your own garden
The lowest investment way to get your kids involved in growing food is to check if there are already edible plants in your garden! Many people do not realize that they may already have food in their garden. You might find serviceberry berries, American elderberry berries, eastern redbud flowers, and chickweed leaves! Of course, if you plan to start eating your garden plants, (especially the weeds) make sure you have properly identified them. Also ensure that they are both thoroughly washed and have not been treated with pesticides.
Gardening with kids: Starting the process
Once you and the other adults in your household have determined how much your family can invest in terms of time, money, and space, the kids can get involved! Starting with the planning and purchasing process, or even just scouting your garage or local yard sales for an appropriate flower pot, getting your kids involved in planning the garden is a great way to start. While you can certainly buy seeds online, requesting paper catalogs and marking the options for them to choose from is a fun activity. These are great for cutting out pictures and making collages too! And feel free to choose some fun flowers or herbs on top of the food crops you’ve decided on if your child likes the look of them. For plants you will purchase (such as berry bushes), take your kids on a trip to the local plant nursery.
Types of plants
Most typical row crops recommended for vegetable gardens require rich soil and full sun. But sometimes all you’re working with is a little patch of shade. For a shady garden, you can still get kids growing and eating, but you will need to think outside the box—and outside of the typical “edible” section of most seed catalogs or plant nurseries. Many of the native plants mentioned previously (Serviceberry, for example) will grow in shade, as will other perennial edibles. Plants like Ostrich fern are not only wonderful ornamental plants, but the fiddleheads can also be harvested and eaten in spring. Other shade-tolerant plants that you and your kids can grow and eat include blueberries, wild strawberries, raspberries, and our native nodding onion, to name a few. In addition to being shade-tolerant, these plants are also perennials. You can tend them year after year, rather than needing to replant annually, as you would with most row crops.
Once your seeds or plants have arrived, the fun really gets started. Toddlers can help water, weed (with close supervision), harvest, and eat! And if your toddler mostly just sits around poking at bugs or digging holes in an unrelated area of the garden, count it as a win! There’s no need to ensure “correct” gardening, at this or any age. The nice thing about planting annuals is you can relax and not worry about whether your kids are going to mess them up because you’ll start again next year anyway! Elementary-aged kids can help with all of the tasks toddlers can, and pitch in with the planning. Have them set up a schedule for growing, tending, and harvesting based on the research they did during the plant selection process. Giving them their own little area to take charge of can be great as well. This kind of involvement can help with executive functioning as well as a sense of responsibility and confidence in their own abilities.
Read about gardening
A great way to prepare your children for gardening and increasing their awareness of plants and flowers is to read books! Some of our favorites include: Jack’s Garden” by Henry Cole, “Growing Vegetable Soup” by Lois Ehlert, and “Compost Stew – an A to Z Recipe for the Earth” by Mary McKenna Siddals.
When done at a level of investment that feels comfortable for your family, gardening for kids can be fun, educational, and delicious- even if your kids end up opting out of fiddlehead ferns for dinner.
For more of the sensory benefits of gardening, kids books on gardening, recommended edible plants for various conditions, and recommendations on where to purchase gardening supplies, visit our site.
About the Guest Authors:
Kiran Talvadkar and Alice Sturm grew up in DC and are now DC area moms- and lifelong friends- who love getting outdoors with their kids! Kiran is a teacher who has an MA in special education with a focus in autism and intellectual disabilities, as well as BCBA certification. Alice is a licensed Landscape Architect, and former organic farmer, specializing in ecological design and playspaces. Follow Kiran and Alice on their adventures at Nature Play Parents.
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