I’m a gardener and a homeschool mom, but those two roles don’t always cross paths – at least not in the same way many homeschool families approach gardening with their kids. Long before becoming a homeschool mom, gardening was my hobby and my volunteer work when I started teaching classes. In that work, I’ve encountered two very different approaches to working with kids in a garden. Just like Morning Basket and Poetry Tea Time, I take a laid back approach to getting my kids into the garden.
Two Gardening with Kids Styles
My oldest daughter attended 2 years of preschool / pre-k. The first year she went to a nature focused school that was almost entirely outdoors. They had a large garden and many animals including chickens, rabbits, a pig, and 2 huge tortoises. Every morning one of the teachers would lead a group of kids into the garden area to plant, inspect, and harvest. The kids were encouraged to join but not required. Some of the harvest was eaten right there, some was fed to the animals, and some was saved for snack time. The kids were part of every single step of the process.
We moved after that first year and found what we hoped would be the closest preschool to that same environment, but the pickings were very slim. The school we choose had a garden, but it turned out that it wasn’t actually used. The teachers wanted specific lesson plans with organized activities during a scheduled block of time in the day, but they were never able to make that happen even with parent volunteers. Even though the school followed a play based child-led approach, they had a difficult time extending that philosophy to the garden.
Since then, I’ve spoken to numerous preschool and elementary school teachers who want to have a garden, but they’re stuck in the same mindset as that second preschool. School teachers usually need to have the activities meet a specific standard in order to justify a garden. As homeschoolers we can do things differently, but many still choose to follow very structured activities in the garden. Many times, that need for structure prevents some from even starting!
Child-Led Gardening with Kids
My frustration in trying to help the second preschool use their garden led me to follow an approach with my kids that closely mirrors the first preschool. My blog doesn’t have many structured gardening with kids activity ideas because we just don’t do many of them.
Instead, my kids simply help me in the garden with everything from preparing the beds to harvesting. Sometimes they’re excited and engaged, and other times they simply don’t care. I let them choose when and how they participate. I encourage and invite but never require. For us, gardening isn’t just an assignment for our science curriculum or a check box for nature study. If their interest is elsewhere, there will always be another day, week, or even season. Letting them choose to be involved will make their experience richer.
Related Post – Favorite Books for Gardening with Kids
Gardening with Kids Tips
- Always invite them to join but never require it.
- It’s going to get messy and muddy! It’s okay to hose them down before heading inside.
- Allow them to decide when to stop participating. Attention spans are short, especially with younger kids, so don’t force them to complete a task if they’d rather run off to play.
- Invite them to help you plan what to plant in the garden AND actually use their ideas. Check out some easy plants that are fun for kids to grow!
- Let them pick out seeds and transplants.
- You’ll likely need extra seeds and transplants when gardening with younger kids. It’s difficult for small kids to be precise when planting seeds, and they may even end up tossing them all over the place. That’s okay!
- Transplants can also get damaged when kids plant them, so have a few extra on hand. Teach them to be gentle, but don’t get upset if you lose a few plants.
- Allow them to use real tools – with proper safety instruction and supervision.
- Let them follow crazy ideas like planting marshmallows and chocolate chips!
- Leave some plants to flower and set seed. Broccoli and carrots are especially fun! Plus, you can eat the broccoli flowers. YUM!
- Remember that gardening with kids rarely results in picture perfect gardens. Seeds won’t get distributed evenly. Plants won’t be planted in perfectly straight lines. That’s okay!
Easy Gardening Activities with Kids
Once planting is done, keep inviting them into the garden to see how the plants are growing. Here are some easy ideas for them to do.
- Mark on a calendar when the harvest should begin for different plants and count down the days.
- Observe how the sun hits the garden at different times of the day and how it changes over the growing season.
- Look for bugs…good and bad.
- Measure plant height and width as the plants grow.
- Nature journal sketching
- Compare the different shades and colors of the plants.
- Kids can help pollinate the flowers. “Be” the Bee!
- Release ladybugs.
- Build a worm farm.
- Search for worms.
- Use all of the senses to explore and describe the garden.
- Hatch a hornworm.
- Harvest immature fruit at different stages and cut open to see how it looks (and maybe tastes!)
- Explore with a portable microscope and magnifying glasses.
- Invite them to pick flowers from the ornamental plants.
- Stand back to watch them explore them and invent their own experiments.
Related Post – 25 Nature Books to Get Kids Exploring
Invite the kids into the garden when it’s harvest time! This is the easiest time to get them involved. Aside from the actual harvesting (and eating!), here are a few ideas to guide their exploration. Remember to invite, not require. School can be connected to the garden, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Measure the produce and graph it.
- Sort by shape, length, weight, color, or texture.
- Use senses to describe the ripe produce and note how it changed as it grew.
- At the end of the growing season, invite them to help clean up.
- Composting is a great way to complete the gardening cycle. Add spent (disease-free) plants to the compost pile.
Related Post – How to Build a Worm Farm
A Garden of Their Own
Set aside space for a garden just for the kids. It can be just a few containers if space is tight. Let them decide what to plant in their garden. Provide guidance, but allow them to choose some plants that may not be the greatest choices. Perhaps the plant is too big for the space or isn’t supposed to grow well in your area. Those “bad” choices can lead to great observations and sometimes they may just work out. However, try not to let them fill their garden with what you think will fail. You want most of the plants to do well or they (and you) can easily get discouraged.
Don’t expect that kids will be able (or willing) to do all the tasks involved in planting, maintaining, and harvesting their garden. You’ll have to pick up the slack, but make sure they know it’s their own garden.
As homeschoolers, we don’t have to link gardening with our kids to a science or nature study curriculum. We don’t have to make sure everything we do meets some state standard. We can relax, head outside, and invite our kids to join us. It’s okay if you don’t know much about gardening. You can learn along with your kids. It doesn’t have to be a structured activity with a long supply list and worksheets. Just go plant something…with your kids.