As our family has been practicing social distancing, I’ve been spending more time in our backyard with my kids, playing in the sun and getting our garden ready to plant. This year, both of my kids are excited to help in the garden—though my almost-4-year-old is a little more organized in his approach than his 18-month-old brother, who spends most of his gardening time moving piles of dirt from one place to another. My older son has specific ideas about what kinds of plants he wants to grow, where to place them, and how the garden should look. Gardening can be a great way to bond as a family, learn about and try new foods, and unplug from the news to practice self care. Here are some tips to get you started!
Begin by gathering a variety of books about gardens, plants, and flowers. Depending on your child’s age, they might enjoy looking through seed catalogs or more formal informational books about gardening. Last spring, I checked out a huge variety of garden planning books from my local library and spent time with my then-3-year-old identifying interesting looking flowers and choosing vegetables to plant. Since our local library is temporarily closed, I have gathered books about gardening and plants from our bookshelves and utilized some online resources as well. I like to try to keep the research side as low-tech as possible, but with older children or depending on your preference, you might choose to incorporate the internet or a gardening app into your research.
Help your child identify which plants they want to grow in their garden using the resources found during your research. This year, I am planning on having both my kids choose 3-5 vegetables and a few kinds of flowers to plant using picture books as inspiration. Younger children might benefit from looking through a limited selection of seed packets to make their top three choices. Depending on your climate and availability, you might decide to buy plant starts, grow seedlings in your home before transplanting them to your garden, or plant seeds directly into the ground. These choices are a great way to introduce your child to the science of gardening and what plants need to survive. Encourage your child to ask questions about the plants they choose, such as, “What does a plant need? How does a plant get water, food, and so on?”
Give your child a blank piece of paper (older children might enjoy using a digital drawing or planning tool), and encourage them to draw out their garden. Ask them to think about where they want to place their plants, which plants should go next to one another, and if there is any particular way they want their garden to look. During this stage, consider showing your child images of different kinds of gardens to help them visualize ways that a garden might look. You can also invite your child to use rocks, sticks, pinecones, or other natural materials in their garden planning. Younger children might enjoy using a pre-designed resource, while older children will appreciate a more open-ended prompt. Depending on your space, you might be able to provide your child with a large area, a small plot next to the house, or a few containers inside. Even if you only have a tiny space available, your child will enjoy making a plan and envisioning their finished garden.
Gather together shovels, rakes, gloves, and any other tools you have available. Choose a day with nice weather and get outside! Show your child how to prepare their garden for planting. Depending on your space, you might be clearing an existing garden bed, building a raised bed, or filling a container with soil for an inside space. Whatever your process, getting dirty, exploring the soil, and preparing to plant is often a highlight for young gardeners!
Make Garden Markers
Use small pieces of wood, popsicle sticks, or a similar material to create unique garden markers with your child. Help younger children write the name of each plant on a marker and illustrate it with a small image using a permanent marker or other material that won’t run off in the rain. Older children can practice their penmanship and creative abilities to create their markers. Model how to place the markers in the garden near where each type of seed or start is planted. This will help your child identify weeds versus baby plants and remember where each plant is located in their garden as they begin to grow.
Depending on your location, climate, and the time of year, you may choose to begin by buying plant starts, planting seeds inside and then transferring to your garden, or planting seeds directly into the ground. Many smaller plant companies or local garden stores sell their seeds online, which can be a great way to support small businesses while practicing social distancing. Read the directions on each plant or seed packet for spacing guidelines, sun exposure, and water needs. Model how to dig a hole and identify proper spacing as you plant. Give your child the opportunity to make mistakes, plant seeds close together, or even mix things up if they choose to. This allows for independence and begins to build responsibility and ownership over the space. Encourage your child to place their garden markers in their garden as they plant.
Water, Weed, and Watch the Garden Grow!
Using the directions from each type of plant in the garden, help your child create a watering and weeding schedule to keep their garden happy. Encourage them to check their garden daily for signs of growth, bugs, or weeds. You can incorporate math learning by having your child keep track of their plant growth using a garden pictograph. If any edible plants are ready to be harvested, invite your child to taste their produce and incorporate it into your weekly family meals.
Gardening with my children has been one of my favorite experiences as a parent. Not only because I love to garden, but also because of the absolute joy, wonder, and excitement I get to see on their faces as they explore the magical world of gardening. Especially with all the challenges this year, I hope you find the same is true for your family.
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.