There is an art to gardening with children - one that I haven't yet mastered. I know we are not the only family who wants to get their children involved with the vegetable plot. The fresh air and exercise, the knowledge of healthy food sources and the satisfaction of home-grown plants – it all conjures up images of idyllic childhood experiences. But how can gardening compete with their activity-packed world, with tennis lessons and computer games?
My wife and I are both trained teachers and we now home-educate our two children. You might think that the two go well together – that imparting knowledge to a class of 30 children must surely make it easier to teach two. But it doesn't really work like that – home education is more a process of re-learning how to learn, of exploring together rather than being the source of knowledge. I think that gardening with children is similar. All too easily we can come to it with our preconceived ideas of what 'end result' we would like to produce, what 'benefits' there are in it for our children and – worst of all – the dreaded list of jobs that we need to tick off in the time available. All of these can work at first - when the project is new - but in the long term motivation dwindles and the interest evaporates. At this point all the benefits are lost in my opinion.
Expectations are the key here: increasingly I think it is my gardener's mentality that gets in the way of good garden time with my children. 'I'll just finish weeding this row' can make the difference between finishing our time in the garden on a high of 'that was fun' and memories of having to hang around while dad finishes his work. Last year, when we had just started gardening on a new allotment, my daughter was so enthusiastic that she happily weeded whole sections of it. Needless to say, that level of commitment dwindled to 'Do we have to go?' after a month or two! This year, they have their own spaces in our small front garden to make it easier to pop out for short periods.
Children approach nature with a blank sheet – part of the wonder of sharing their childhood with them. On occasions I have spent hours with them while they hunt for worms and re-home them, swing on a garden fork to dig up carrots, discover potatoes that we didn't know were there or just have a good chat in the sunshine. Friends of ours have a whole patch just dedicated to making dens, with swings and props brought out from the shed when they visit. These successes – the golden moments of connection – are so beneficial and teach our children by far the most valuable lessons in life.
So, here's my list of tips for getting children involved. It's very much a work-in-progress:
- Give them as much choice as possible: from choosing varieties that have unusual colours or look fun in the catalogue to deciding what to get involved in
- Keep activities short but with the option of extending the time if they get into it
- Go with the flow: watch for what they are discovering, abandon your plans and spend that time digging a hole, hunting 'baddies' or marvelling at a dew-laden spiders web
- Don't be afraid to take shortcuts where needed – using seed tapes (which space the seeds for you) or bought-in plants
- Schedule other time to get the list of jobs done
- Keep it fun and change what you are doing if it isn't
Gardening with children is an art and like any art it takes time to master but is immensely satisfying as you begin to see the world through different eyes. I'm still learning the art, so why not share your ideas and experiences of what works for you by adding a comment below?