With the COVID-19 outbreak keeping many of us at home, parents everywhere are looking for ways to keep their kids productively occupied. The upcoming growing season might just offer the perfect solution. Why not encourage them to plant and tend their own vegetable garden this spring?
There’s no question that starting kids on a diet rich in vegetables and fruits sets them squarely on a path to good health in adulthood. But, as every parent knows, convincing kids to actually eat vegetables and fruits is no small challenge. On the other hand, when kids have a hand in growing their own produce, they tend to be much more amenable to eating—or at least sampling—the fruits of their labor.
Many lessons to learn
In addition to encouraging them to make healthier food choices, a vegetable garden has myriad life lessons to teach children. Planting and carefully tending vegetable plants teaches kids responsibility, improves observational skills, highlights the connection between effort and reward, and demonstrates the value of patience and postponing gratification. Not to mention, gardening is a rich sensory experience that gets kids outdoors and away from the electronic gadgetry that tends to consume so much of their attention. Working on a gardening project together is also an excellent bonding opportunity for parents and kids to share.
Choose the right location
Pick a sunny location with good, well-drained soil that contains ample composted organic matter. Make sure the location is also easy to reach with a hose. If the soil on your property is heavy clay, a raised garden bed is a good option. If your property is too small to realistically accommodate an in-ground garden or you live in an apartment or condo with no yard, you can always set up a container vegetable garden on a porch, patio, or balcony instead. Ideally, you’ll want to position the garden where it is easily accessible to the children (e.g., near their play area) so they’ll have a greater sense of connection to—and ownership in—the project. If you have an established vegetable garden, consider setting aside a portion of it just for the kids to cultivate.
Arm them with the right tools
Adult gardening tools, e.g., shovels, trowels, cultivators, and rakes, aren’t designed for easy wielding by smaller kids. They also tend to have sharp or pointy edges that can cause injury if mishandled. A set of kid-friendly tools can be the perfect solution to this dilemma. Kids’ tools tend to be brightly colored (i.e., fun!), are designed for smaller hands to grip, and typically have more blunt “business ends” so accidental injury is less likely. You can even repurpose old spoons and measuring cups as shovels and soil scoops for the smallest gardeners.
Let them choose the plants
Young gardeners are most likely to sample the fruits of their labor when they’re allowed to choose which vegetable plants to grow. Peas, beans, lettuce, carrots, radishes, and cherry or grape tomatoes are just a sampling of veggies that are particularly popular with kids. Essentially, any veggies that little hands can easily pick and are ready to eat fresh from the garden (with a good rinsing, of course) will win kids over. Pumpkins, with their obvious Halloween connotations, are another favorite, though they require more patience than some veggies do as well as a fairly substantial amount of garden space.
Put them to work!
Even from a very young age, children can assist with gardening chores. With some adult supervision, little ones can take on responsibilities commensurate with their size, strength, and attention span, such as sowing seeds, digging holes for transplants, watering, pulling weeds, and keeping a sharp eye out for garden pests. (Their position close to ground level makes youngsters especially adept at spotting pesky, plant-munching critters.) In addition to assisting with these chores, bigger kids can be enlisted to help with some of the more physically demanding gardening tasks or those chores requiring a bit more finesse, such as turning and amending the soil, cultivating or raking around plants and between rows, spreading mulch, tying up plants, pruning, and, of course, overseeing the efforts of their younger siblings.
Keep it fun!
Most importantly, make sure your kids have fun with the garden project. Don’t fret if they wind up covered with mud from head to toe every time they work in the garden or if they present every bug they dig up for your close inspection. Remember, it’s all about fueling their curiosity about the natural world and developing their gardening skills. And if they decide they like the taste of fresh vegetables in the process, so much the better! ❦