Cultivating Food and Life Lessons
Just as with learning to walk, children learn best by doing rather than by watching. Gardening with kids is filled with exploration, education, and fun, allowing them to experience things firsthand and participate in active learning. Working in a garden inspires creativity, develops nurturing skills, and empowers kids to make choices, thus giving them a sense of pride in their accomplishments.
Growing Life Skills
The learning opportunities that come from gardening reach beyond the backyard. In the most literal sense, a garden is a science lab that cultivates curiosity about nature, horticulture, and wildlife. More broadly, gardening is a holistic activity in which children make connections between the different things they learn, and they can then apply those lessons to other things in life.
Planting Curiosity and Cultivating Empowerment
To empower kids, let them have a say in which plants are used and involve them in choosing projects and creating gardening plans.
Gardening provides many opportunities for engaging kids. By planting, designing, and maintaining the garden, children learn responsibility. By harvesting, cooking, and sharing the food they’ve grown, they learn about where food comes from and nutrition, and they develop healthy eating habits. As kids work together in groups, they learn important life skills, such as cooperating and sharing ideas.
For urban kids, garden activities offer a connection to nature that might be in short supply amid a city’s concrete and steel.
Create a Child-friendly Garden: Good Plants vs. Bad Plants
As with most things, you can find both the good and the bad when choosing plants. Some plants are downright toxic to kids (and dogs), so they should be avoided in a child-friendly garden.
Some plants to be avoided include castor bean (Ricinus communis), precatory bean, and rosary pea (Abrus). These plants are dangerous even in small quantities. Others are toxic in larger quantities, such as angel's trumpet (Brugmansia), delphinium, foxglove (Digitalis), euonymus, St. Johns Wort (Hypericum), lantana, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), and valerian (V. officinalis).
For a complete list of toxic and non-toxic plants, check out this handy list.
However, many plants are perfectly safe for children. These include veggies that grow quickly, such as pumpkins, potatoes, and radishes, and those with large seeds that fit well into small hands, such as beans and sunflowers.
Kids will love the scent of culinary herbs like chives, sage, mint, and basil, and those plants look great in a garden! Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, pansies, violets, and calendulas, are pretty, and kids can use them to decorate a plate filled with the food they grew, harvested, and cooked.
Educational Opportunities Beyond the Garden
Gardening provides a good opportunity to learn problem-solving and math skills, including counting, geometry, percentages, and data gathering. Kids begin learning these skills as they measure the garden plot and designate shapes for various growing areas. Children can learn numbers and practice basic counting skills by counting the seeds needed and the number of plants that sprout in those spots. Older children can collect data and create charts and graphs to keep track of things in their gardens.
In addition to learning about nature and food origins and establishing healthy eating habits, research shows that children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.Canaris, 1995; Hermann et al., 2006; Libman, 2007; McAleese & Rankin, 2007; Pothukuchi, 2004
Food for Thought: Planting a Pizza Garden
Connecting gardening with cooking is one way of extending learning outside the garden. Plant a “pizza garden” with tomatoes, peppers, and herbs like basil and oregano. Once kids harvest the goodies, they can invite their friends to a pizza party.
Gardening Activities for Every Season
Each season presents opportunities for its own particular activities – even winter, when your garden may be covered in snow. When gardening outdoors isn’t possible, bring the garden indoors by planting houseplants, growing a windowsill or kitchen garden, sowing seeds, or starting a creative project, such as building a bird feeder or making plant markers from popsicle sticks.
Indoor Garden Project: Plant an Avocado Seed in a Glass
This age-old project is actually a simple form of hydroponic gardening, helping teach kids about this soilless form of gardening. Avocados grow fast, making this an easy winter activity in which kids can observe and nurture their plant before taking it outside and replanting it in the spring.
Spring, Summer, and Fall Garden Projects
The cool weather of early spring is a good time to start seeds indoors. In late spring, when the weather grows warmer, kids can plant easy-to-grow cool-weather veggies like spinach, lettuce, radishes, and peas, which they are more likely to eat than chard or kale.
In the summer, you and your children can curl up and read Jack and the Beanstalk together next to the climbing green beans you planted.
In autumn, when the leaves begin to fall and temperatures drop, you can have your young ones help with late-season gardening projects. If you have room to grow pumpkins, you can use them at Halloween when you are ready to make jack-o-lanterns. Have the kids help decide what to carve in your pumpkins.
Lifelong Learning In and Out of the Garden
Some projects are multi-seasonal, meaning they can be enjoyed any time of year. A terrarium – a miniature garden inside a covered glass or plastic container – is an excellent method for teaching about evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Constructing a bird feeder from a milk carton is an easy project for kids, and it allows them to observe birds’ feeding behaviors once you take it outside and fill it up.
Staying in the Zone
If you don’t live in a zone in which you can garden all year, you should put your garden to bed in the fall. Although it may seem like the end of the gardening season, this time of year still offers opportunities for experiential learning. Indoor gardening projects will keep kids growing plants all year, allowing them to develop important life skills such as responsibility, communication, cooperation, and sharing. Gardening helps build kids’ self-confidence and sense of accomplishment and gives adults a chance to spend quality time with the kids.