With the stay-at-home order still in place, most families have figured out creative activities to fill their days while they spend more time together. I know my neighbors have been spending a great deal of time outside enjoying the mild spring weather, including their children. Many have taken an interest in gardening, as I see people building beds, sprucing up the landscape and planting flowers.
This surge in gardening is a perfect opportunity to engage kids in life’s most rewarding hobby. I’ll admit, I am a little partial — but gardening has taught me more lessons than I can count. So why not pass along a little knowledge to the next generation? There are many ways to garden with kids, and all of my suggestions can be easily done at home, mostly using materials on hand.
Gardening is the ideal way to connect a child to the natural world. In their most basic forms, plants are just seeds, and watching those seeds sprout and grow is a lesson that will last a lifetime. I can still remember sprouting Dixie-cup pea seeds in grade school, watching the day-to-day progress with fervent fascination. Starting seeds in a sunny location is great way to introduce a child to gardening, and can be done with what we have available at home.
Empty yogurt cups, similar plastic containers, paper cups or waxed-paper cartons are all available in our kitchens, and serve as great pots for starting seeds. Domed cake pans or deli containers (think rotisserie chicken) make an instant greenhouse, providing a dome of humidity for seedlings. Of course, you also can see what you have in the garage or garden shed, too, using discarded trays and nursery pots that you have been meaning to recycle.
Use stored potting soil or soil dug from your yard to fill containers. Even the act of gathering soil can be a lesson for kids, as you’ll most likely find earthworms and other critters in the dirt and under leaves. Chances are, you may have a few seed packets at home. I found over a dozen packs or partial packs of seeds when I did a sweep of my freezer, fridge and garden shed. But if you need to acquire some seeds, they’re available at most essential businesses, including grocery stores.
Some of the easiest seeds to sprout include zinnias, peas, beans, sunflowers, lettuce, cucumbers and squash. Choose something that your child is interested in, whether it’s a favorite vegetable or a flower. Once planted in your soil and placed in a sunny location, these seeds will just take a few days to germinate and start to grow. The whole process of starting and caring for seeds is a science lesson, making a family activity an easy educational opportunity.
Once your child’s seedlings are big enough, upgrade their environment to a a bigger space. This could be a landscape bed outside your home, a freshly dug plot of earth, or a large pot placed in a sunny location. Establishing their plants into a permanent home will allow your child to watch them grow and start to bloom or fruit. As the season progresses, it’s also a chance to observe insects, talk about pollination and practice patience.
Re-growing produce is another way to engage children in gardening. The root end of certain vegetables can be re-grown with a little bit of time. Choices include celery, cabbage and romaine lettuce. All you need is a sunny window and a dish of water. Potatoes sprouting eyes can be divided and planted, and will grow quickly. When roots are planted in a clear container (such as a halved milk jug), kids can observe root growth before green growth starts. Onions, garlic and avocado pits are also easy to regrow.
Gardening teaches us where our food comes from, the care it takes to make something grow, and how to be self-reliant in today’s society. Of course, planting a few cucumbers isn’t going to make us totally self-sufficient, but it at least gives us the basic knowledge of how to grow food to put on the table. It’s a hands-on way to learn science and biology at home, which is part of the spring curriculum for many young kids.
I think one of the most valuable lessons gardening teaches us and our children is how to be more sustainable in a wasteful world. Engaging our kids with gardening can demonstrate how to keep things out of the trash, how to compost, how to use what we have and save the seeds from what we grow. It makes kids appreciate how much a little can do, and how to be more cognizant of the natural world.
The effects of COVID-19 have placed a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty on all our shoulders — including our children. Turning off the news and unplugging from technology is a great way to relieve stress and place our focus on something positive and productive. In a world where we are being constantly reminded to wash our hands, kids may get a kick out of plunging their fingers into the dirt. I know I do.