Gardening with Children

by William Isbell

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Many of my fondest childhood memories center on gardening with my grandmothers. As research supports, my current affinity for gardening and the natural world is, undoubtedly, deeply rooted (excuse the pun) in those interactions. They not only served as an important bridge between our generations and afforded me access to a trove of wisdom, but also fostered a connection to the legacy of past generations.

One of my grandmothers routinely planted a row of flowers in her vegetable garden—a tradition passed down from her mother, who learned it from her mother. While modern research explains how flowers attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, my grandmother’s reasoning was far less scientific. “We plant the entire garden to feed our bodies,” she would say, “but plant a row of flowers to feed our soul.” For my grandmothers, gardening was truly a spiritual endeavor.

Research supports the interconnection of gardening and the emotional, physical, and mental development of people—in particular, children. So it is, the sage wisdom passed to me rings true under the modern lens of science, for what is “spiritual”, if not the harmonious overlap of the emotional, physical, and mental realms?

As you encourage our next generation of gardeners and lovers-of-nature, here are a few tips to consider.

Don’t:

  • Expect children, especially young ones, to focus for long periods;
  • Expect your gardening time to be efficient (in truth, gardening with children usually takes more time and yields fewer results);
  • Tell children how to do everything;
  • Make up answers to questions you don’t know;
  • Ignore the "teachable moments" that arise in favor of your agenda/schedule;
  • Expect to have the perfect garden.

Do:

  • Encourage active, hands-on learning (children learn best through this type of engagement);
  • Rely more on visual demonstrations and activities rather than verbal explanations;
  • Allow mistakes to happen (trial-and-error is a valuable learning tool);
  • Ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions to encourage exploration and experimentation;
  • Allow kids to generate questions and formulate hypotheses to problems (even if you know the answer);
  • Allow risk assessment. (I don’t mean give your 4 year-old a chainsaw, but don’t force lessons. If you’ve warned children about an ant bed, allow them to determine how they will learn that lesson—verbally or physically);
  • Choose vegetables with varying harvest times (shorter harvest crops are often more ideal for younger ages);
  • Allow kids to assist with plant selection and placement;
  • Include alternative solutions/projects. (i.e. build a pole trellis instead of relying on store bought cages);
  • Allow kids to share new methods that might be unfamiliar to you but are central to how their generation processes and expresses information (i.e. social media, photo editing apps, etc);

    And, for my grandmother’s sake, plant a row of flowers in your vegetable garden!