From the time my kids could toddle out the back door, we were gardening together. Digging, working the soil, weeding, finding bugs and worms, planting and watering became favorite ways for us as a family to spend time together outside, connect with nature and have loads of fun.
Gardening of all types has seen a true renaissance in recent years as a pastime and a way to grow food. For kids, the focus is on helping them get active and eat healthier. But if you want to make it a family activity, it's worthwhile to take a little time to think about goals before heading into the patch or patio.
"It's all about judging success with different standards; quality versus quantity," says Jennifer Sterling, Youth & Family Programs coordinator at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. "Spending time with kids and getting messy is a big part of establishing a connection to nature. That in and of itself offers a benefit, even if nothing ever really grows."
To make planting and growing a true kid-friendly activity, start by looking at your available space. Some families have a big enough yard or community gardening space to plant a kids' garden in addition to a production veggie plot or ornamental showcase. For others, there are specific ways you can create a garden that's welcome for all, regardless of whether you're growing in the ground or containers.
Keep your garden and your objectives simple, Sterling advises. The garden you plant doesn't have to be elaborate or large. It does help to plant vegetables and flowers that are different, and that engage the senses.
"A lot of it is about the process, not the end result," Sterling says. "It is wonderful when you get the tomatoes and the beans and flowers, but the day-to-day process of being together in the garden is important with kids."
Everyone has different reasons for gardening. When you garden with children, make it your top priority to empower them by designing a place for them. According to Nathan Larson, Community GroundWorks education director, "the heart of the project is allowing kids to use curiosity, experiment, make mistakes and have fun."
What you're creating for your children is a cooperative venture, Larson says. Kids feel powerful "as part of a team of growers," where success is a joint effort.
Thinking beyond plants can add a lot to a children's garden space. Julie King, coordinator of the Rooftop Ramble at the Madison Children's Museum, says chicken-keeping is easier than many think, plus a great addition to a kids' garden. Look for information on websites like madcitychickens.com or mypetchicken.com, or stop by the Rooftop Ramble - a green space and garden on the museum roof - to see a working coop.
Worm composting is another simple, fun and educational element to add to your garden. You can purchase any number of worm composting (or vermiculture) supplies, and they don't have to be elaborate. King has several worm composting bins on the museum rooftop, one of them a simple plastic tub where worms feed on shredded scraps of waste paper and food from the employee break room. Find instructions at cityfarmer.org.
Find lesson plans and information including the new "Got Veggies," a garden-based nutrition education guide, at troygardens.org/resources/publications/curricula.
Madison Children's Museum
Drop in to Rooftop Farmers each Tuesday, 3-3:30 p.m., to help with the daily chores of taking care of a rooftop farm, among other activities and camps. Find more at madisonchildrensmuseum.org.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Classes include Celebrating Spring Toddler Story & Stroll; Nature Printing with Herbs, Fruits and Flowers; Starting with Seeds; Wiggly Worms; and Eating the Alphabet. For details go to the education tab at olbrich.org.
There are many ways to build fun for kids into the garden:
- Allow kids to help plan what to grow. This brings them into the process from the start and draws on their natural capacity to care for things.
- Sprout seeds in jars. With a simple clear jar fitted with a mesh top, you can make your own sprouts to eat or plant for fast-growing and kid-friendly micro-greens. Find easy instructions at sproutpeople.org.
- Plant pet grass inside to feed to cats or even guinea pigs. Get oats, barley or wheat grass seed at a garden supply store and plant them in pots or a flat. You'll see results in one to two weeks.
- Encourage garden snacking by planting berries or making spring rolls from wrappers packed with fresh-picked ingredients right in the garden. Research has shown that children are more likely to taste something they've grown, Larson says.
- Plant a theme garden, such as a pizza garden with tomatoes, oregano and basil, or a salsa garden with a variety of peppers, onions and tomatoes.
- Choose flowers or edible plants from which kids can create a fairy garden, complete with furniture made from natural materials.
- Use plants like climbing beans in the yard or pots to create a hiding spot in the garden. Plant fast-growing beans on bamboo stalks or with sunflowers, in a tepee shape where kids can crawl inside.
- Include a little drama. Kids love seeing, smelling, tasting and touching different kinds of plants. Plant some sharp-tasting French sorrel, heirloom lettuce covered in dots, edible flowers like nasturtiums, or fennel that is fun to touch once it's gone to feathery seed.
- Incorporate composting, taking kitchen scraps from the house to a garden bin. It's fun for kids to care for the heap and see these things turn into nutrient-rich soil.
- Build in small activity stations. A stump and things from the garden become an outdoor art studio, and kids love to make music from pots and pans hanging from branches.