Give your kids a plot of land and it’ll inevitably turn weed-infested. It may not be what you’d imagined for your backyard, but, to them, it’ll be a masterpiece. “Early childhood gardens,” says Sarah Pounders, education specialist with the National Gardening Association, “are going to be well loved and they are going to be fun and experimental, but they’re probably not going to be photogenic.”
The first thing that gardens do is give kids the experience of being in nature and taking care of living things, says Pounders. Connecting kids with nature isn’t something that happens easily these days, with TV, video games, and hectic work schedules all cutting into outdoor time. “We look at the garden as the intersection of the natural world and humans,” says John Nimmo, associate professor and executive director of the Child Study and Development Center at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s an environment where children can interact with and get curious about the natural world.” The CSDC garden is interactive, with purple beans, flowers that burst open when little fingers touch them, or flowers that release their scent when they’re stepped on. It’s also a place for a snack, where kids learn where their food comes from. During harvest, it’s not uncommon to see kids leaving for the day munching on a cucumber picked that morning.
So kids have fun and eat a veggie or two, but what are they really learning from digging in the dirt?
- Curiosity. The garden is a wonderful place to ask questions and satisfy kids’ natural curiosity by exploring questions like: What do worms do in a garden? Why do plants have roots and how do they work? Or, why do we have to water plants anyway?
- Patience. Nothing happens overnight in a garden. Watching seeds grow and change, seeing the seasons pass, and tending to tiny seedlings will help kids gain patience and learn the rhythm of each day, season, and year.
- Eye-hand coordination. There’s nothing like digging with a trowel and planting a seed just-so to improve your fine motor skills.
- Classification. Compare and contrast plants, group them by color, type of plant, purpose (flower vs. food) and which bugs like which plants. Along the way, you’re reinforcing basic math skills.
- Budding scientists. To start on the scientific method, says Pounders, come up with questions (What happens if I plant a pansy upside down? How long will it take for a tomato plant to grow?) then work on experiments that tackle those questions.
- Observation. Spend a few minutes sharpening their observation skills by focusing in on what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, and what’s going on at that moment.
- Tracking. Keep track of rainfall, how fast the plants are growing, temperatures, and your child will learn how to manage change over time. Eventually, they’ll see patterns and consequences, like what happens when it doesn’t rain in the garden for a week.
- Sorting, counting, and more. Sort different leaves by shape, count the number of leaves on each plant and compare them, weigh the vegetables that come out of the garden, measure the length of bean plants growing up your house, find shapes in your vegetable plants, distinguish same and different, alive and not alive. It’s all basic math.
Ready to get started? Here are tips and resources to start your own garden:
Grow a variety of success-ready plants. Herbs, fruits and vegetables, and flowers in a variety of colors that grow quickly are good choices. Choose plants that are suited for your soil so you don’t have to use a lot of fertilizer or pesticides (stop in a local garden center or your local National Gardening Association Extension for more information).
Start small and get bigger. Practice growing plants in cups and then expand to raised garden beds or small outdoor plots.
Online resources. Visit the National Gardening Association web site for a newsletter about gardening with young children, a list of the best plants for young gardeners, and a parents' primer. The University of New Hampshire’s Child Study and Development Center Growing a Green Generation program has information about growing a garden with young children. Or, find readymade gardens in your area through the American Public Gardens Association.