Gardening with kids

Gardening is the perfect family activity this summer, with many of us having more time at home together. Growing things together has so many benefits. In addition to the bonding that comes from shared activity, children who participate in growing vegetables eat healthier and are more receptive to trying new foods. Gardening can also help teach children how to relax and calm down. Being outside and tending to growing things increases levels of Vitamin D and helps reduce the stress hormone cortisol. 

You don’t need a big yard to enjoy the benefits of caring for vegetable plants or flowers. Even a patio planter in a sunny corner will work.

A garden gives you the opportunity to engage all the senses – the taste of a tomato fresh off the vine, the smell of rosemary, the sound of bamboo rustling in the breeze, the soft fuzz of a green bean pulled from the bush, and the beauty of a sunflower following the arc of the sun across the sky. 

Gardening teaches responsibility and patience, with visible results when plants are well cared for through regular watering. 

When getting started with gardening together, choose things to grow based on family favorites. For younger children, choose plants that are quick to sprout and easy to harvest. Two of our favorites are sugar snap peas and green string beans. Snap peas like cool weather and plenty of water, so are a perfect first crop in the late Spring. They will need a trellis, which is easy to make with three long poles tied together at the top, tee-pee style, and some twine. Snap peas can be eaten right off the vine – a favorite activity for toddlers and preschoolers. 

It’s not too late to sow some green beans this summer. Green beans come in both bush and pole varieties. Last week we replaced the sugar snap peas in our garden with green beans and expect to start harvesting by the end of August.

Kale and Swiss chard are other easy growers in the Willamette Valley. These, too, can be started now and will continue to grow as summer gives way to autumn. Kale will often overwinter in the Willamette Valley. 

We use lots of kale hidden in blueberry smoothies at our house. We also love it sauteed with some onions and bacon, or pounded raw into some olive oil and Italian seasoning as a salad.

Sunflowers are a fun option for family gardening. Although they require patience through their long growing season, they will provide lots of happy color once they bloom. Harvesting the seeds from the head of the sunflower is a perfect autumn activity. As the weather cools, the harvested seeds can be shared in bird feeders with our feathered friends.

If you are looking for options that come back year after year, consider a strawberry patch or adding a few blueberry bushes along a fence. Both of these perennial fruits are kid-friendly favorites for picking and eating.

Even the youngest toddler will enjoy helping prepare the soil for planting. Small trowels in a raised bed are perfect for this activity. Counting can be practiced as seeds are planted, and older children can practice math skills as they figure out how many seeds will fit in the space you’ve allotted. 

Green bean planting is perfect for this activity, as they are planted one seed at a time, four inches apart. Invite your elementary students to determine how many seeds will fit in your row. They can also help decide how much garden space to devote to each crop. If each plant will produce six string beans at a time, how many plants do we need to be able to pick enough for everyone at dinner?

Watering is a task that is vital to the healthy growth of the vegetable garden. Toddlers love anything that involves water, and will happily water the garden with you. Be sure to provide a watering can that is the right size for your small child. 

The necessity of watering throughout the summer here in the Willamette Valley helps build responsibility and self-confidence. With regular attention and a degree of patience, eventually the fruits of your effort will be ready to pick and taste. Children can take pride in their contribution to the family table.

And if you’ve included flowers in your garden, invite your children to pick enough to make a beautiful bouquet for the dinner table. Bon appetit!

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at: www.lynnebrownwriting.com.