Whether they're sprinkling seeds or raking weeds, gardening is a fun and fruitful activity for toddlers and preschoolers.
Today, we look at how young children thrive in the garden and share some ways that parents can encourage little ones to become green thumbs.
What are the benefits of gardening with young children?
It's not just plants that grow in the garden – it's children too. Youngsters develop and learn while getting their hands dirty, and here are some good reasons to get them gardening:
- Gardening develops children's physical skills in a fun and productive way.
Michigan State University says, 'Young children practice locomotor skills, body management skills and object control skills while they move from one place to the other carrying tools, soil and water. They [move] their bodies using large muscles and using muscles to balance and manage objects too.'
In addition, children hone their fine motor skills when sowing seeds, weeding, picking flowers, pouring water and using a trowel; and they experience sensory stimulation when touching things like damp soil, velvety petals and squirmy worms.
- Gardening encourages children to try new foods and eat healthily.
Little ones learn about nutrition and where fresh food comes from. Plus, they're more inclined to try a new food, like spinach or basil, if they've helped grow it.
- Gardening teaches children life skills.
They learn how to focus on the task at hand, follow directions, be patient, and communicate and cooperate with fellow gardeners. They also learn how to make connections, e.g. by understanding the cause and effect of plants needing water to survive. They take responsibility when caring for plants; and gardening provides opportunities to embrace new challenges, like learning to un-pot a plant or use a rake.
- Gardening is educational.
The Better Health Channel sees gardening as an opportunity for reasoning and discovery, and says children learn about 'the science of plants, animals, weather, the environment, nutrition and simple construction' through gardening.
According to Michigan State University, the garden is also a place where children can practice their 'intellectual skills such as remembering and analysing information and predicting outcomes.' For example, children can recall how the soil was prepared for planting, explain differences between plants and answer questions like, "Is there enough sunlight here for the tree to grow?"
Gardening enhances children's literacy skills, as they learn the names of different plants and start to read words on seed packets; and children also get to think creatively by finding ways to plan, produce and problem-solve.
- Gardening makes children feel good.
This productive activity provides a bonding experience between grown-up and child and it builds youngsters' self-confidence as they learn new skills, achieve goals and enjoy the food or flowers they've grown.
Gardening also encourages a love of nature and provides a positive outdoors experience. The Spoke says, 'half the pleasure of gardening is to commune with nature, green plants, fresh air and gentle sunlight,' which leaves children feeling happier and less stressed.
How can parents encourage a love of gardening?
Children thrive on new information and experiences, so parents can introduce youngsters to the wonderful world of gardening by:
- Visiting parks, botanic gardens and community gardens; attending Open Garden days; going to plant and farmers' markets; and exploring the gardens of relatives and friends.
- Flipping through gardening books and magazines together, pointing out pictures, explaining interesting facts and answering youngsters’ questions.
- Setting aside part of the garden, balcony or windowsill for children to grow something in; and encouraging young children to dig in the dirt, plant seeds, water plants and harvest produce.
- Explaining where food comes, how plants grow and what creatures, like bees and worms, get up to.
- Engaging with the family garden and growing plants that are interesting to children.
What plant types pique the interest of toddlers and preschoolers?
When it comes to young children, fast-growing, large-sized and sensory plants will really appeal.
Kids love plants that:
- Look colourful - bright sunflowers and marigolds
- Feel nice - fuzzy lavender and gooey aloe vera
- Taste good - sweet carrots and strawberries
- Smell beautiful - aromatic mint and jasmine
- Sound interesting - grasses or bamboo that rustle in the breeze
What are some great activities for young gardeners?
There are lots of ways to make gardening fun, and whether you have a sprawling vegetable patch or just enough space for a succulent, here are eight gardening projects for little people:
- Grow a Grass Head
- Decorate a flower pot and plant some seeds in it
- Create a fairy garden
- Plant a bean tepee or sunflower house
- Make a scarecrow
- Set up an egg shell seed-growing experiment
- Build a worm farm together
- Grow seeds in unusual planter boxes such as LEGO or an old toy truck
How can parents and care-givers keep little gardeners safe?
Gardens are exciting and enriching places, but in between patting down soil and pulling carrots, it's important to keep children's safety in mind.
To prevent garden mishaps, the Better Health Channel recommends that adults:
- Choose age-appropriate tools, i.e. those that are lightweight, easy-to-handle and correctly-sized for the child
- Store equipment and tools safely
- Keep sprays and fertilisers out of reach, and instead of using chemicals, focus on gardening organically
- Secure fences and gates
- Supervise very young children and toddlers around buckets of water
- Provide shade in summer, e.g. by gardening under shade cloths or umbrellas
- Dress children for the conditions, e.g. using hats, sunscreen, wet weather gear and closed shoes
It's also important to look out for any prickles or stingers and wash their hands well after gardening.
What is the Garden to Table initiative?
For parents of school-aged children, Garden to Table is a great programme that is teaching NZ kids, 'How to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh seasonal food.'
Schools sign up to the curriculum-integrated programme, which sees children growing produce in an environmentally sustainable garden, then cooking it up into tasty meals.
Since the programme began in 2008, thousands of children have reaped the rewards of Garden to Table and you can find more info here at Garden to Table.
All in all, gardening is a fantastic activity for children, adults and Mother Earth, so dust off your gloves, dig out your trowel and plan your next plantings!