There are few things better for mental and physical wellbeing than exercise, the great outdoors and getting your hands dirty. And you know what checks all those boxes? Gardening. It’s a fun and easy activity for kids, plus it has a whole host of benefits specific to children including enhanced cognitive and motor development. (A great-looking yard is a nice bonus, too.) To get you and your kids ready to dig in, parenting expert and Toronto-based family counsellor Alyson Schafer shares her top tips for fostering a love of gardening from an early age.
1Guard Against Bugs
Nothing ruins good outdoor fun like itchy insect bites. Before getting started, make sure your little ones are protected from mosquitos and flies with insect repellant or long sleeves and pants. Sun care is important too, so slather sunscreen onto exposed skin (don’t forget to reapply every two hours!) and don wide-brimmed hats.
2Buy Tiny Tools
Small hands need small gardening tools, so make sure you have lightweight watering cans, spades and hand rakes that are easy to grip. Plenty of kids’ gardening kits contain everything you need—including adorable child-sized gardening gloves—and come in bright colours or patterns. They make excellent gift ideas for birthdays, Christmas or to celebrate the end of the school year.
3Choose Seeds and Seedlings
Head to a garden centre or do online research as a family to decide what types of flowers, fruits or veggies you’ll plant. “Any time you can find the appropriate place to give choice and decision-making to kids, the better,” says Schafer. “Rather than saying, ‘No, Mom doesn’t need parsley this year,’ try, ‘Here’s your budget for seeds and you get to pick five things.’” If your children have some say, they’ll be more interested in the outcome and are likely to find extra enjoyment in the process.
To really get them invested, try growing fruits and vegetables so they can later reap the tasty rewards of their hard work. Carrots, beans, cucumbers and peas are all easy plants for kids to grow (for more ideas, check out Homestead Acres’ guide).
Of course, you can always get your kids involved with the family garden, but they might feel even more pride in their work—and the urge to keep going—if they have the responsibility of a small plot of their own. (Plus, you can keep your own rows neat and tidy and they can go wild in their personal section.) Separate the space with a border or small fence that they can paint themselves.
5Teach the Basics
“There are so many little side conversations and lessons that can come from seeing a seed germinate and needing to look after it just like you look after a puppy or a fish,” notes Schafer. “We need to get out and water our plant and snip off the deadheads and see how it’s doing. It requires patience and maintenance. In this day of instant gratification, it’s nice to see something that needs nurturing.” Make sure your children understand the importance of water, sunlight and fertilizer, as well as any other maintenance tasks like weeding.
6Have Positive Expectations
Believe that your kids are ready to learn and that they will be successful. Schafer says that kids pick up on whether a parent thinks they’re capable and they’ll form a belief about themselves based on that faith—or lack of faith. “If you have a kid who’s enthusiastic and what they see reflected back is, ‘No, you’ll do it wrong,’ then it’s easy for them to internalize that idea,” explains Schafer. “It’s important for parents to always think about what they’re projecting and that they have positive expectations. Not high expectations, but positive expectations that things will work out.”
7Make Maintenance Fun
Once the seeds are planted and begin to sprout, don’t let the watering and weeding become a chore. “Children pick up on our feelings about an activity,” says Schafer, so a happy attitude and genuine love for gardening is key to helping kids love gardening, too. “If we keep that positive energy flowing, then our kids become curious about what we find interesting and why we find it joyful.” Make the time to work side by side, talk, sing or even get into a water fight if the weather’s warm.
8Embrace the Mess
Gardening is dirty—and that’s OK! Put the kids in old clothes that they can destroy and let them get their hands muddy. They’ll love it.
9Put Veggies to Good Use
The best part of growing vegetables? Eating them! Encourage your kids to help with meal prep using the fruits of their labour. Picky eaters may even be more excited to eat veggies if they’ve watched them grow with their own eyes.
Not only will your kids develop valuable skills during their gardening time, but they’ll also create happy memories of family life beyond the standard obligations. “We spend a lot of time taking kids to extracurriculars or getting them off to school,” Schafer says. “We are woefully missing out on recreational play time as families. It’s very important for relationship-building, bonding and building bridges.”
Kids Gardening Tools and Essentials
- Michigan State University. Gardening with young children helps their development.
- Government of Canada. Top sunscreen safety tips.
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