Gardening with Very Young Kids

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I provide care for kids ages 1-11, and teaching school age kids planting and harvesting is a little simpler than teaching younger kids. Of course, their motor skills are more developed as well as their critical thinking skills, so there is more logic involved. But even an infant can learn in and enjoy the garden!
One time we were planting a tray of broccoli in succession, which means we wanted to harvest it at different times so we had our seed tray set up and every two weeks we put in a row of seeds. We had some seedlings that were two weeks old and some that were four weeks old and we were putting in row number three. I had a new child that week and when it was their turn, they saw the rows of baby broccoli plants, and instantly started grabbing the tops and pulling out the largest seedlings one at a time, pluck, pluck, pluck, pluck, pluck! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! The shock and horror! We had been babying those things for a month and now they were all laying on the table. What can we do when tragedy strikes? What would they learn if I would have freaked out on the outside like I was on the inside? I’m sure they would not have gotten a positive image of gardening. I did react, I’m only human. But then I rallied and told them that we want the seedlings to stay in the dirt. I put them all back in the tray as carefully as I could and then we talked about how careful we have to be. We proceeded with their turn to plant seeds. Crisis mostly averted. And we went on to plant many things together after that. By the way, all of the seedlings recovered just fine to my surprise, and we learned something.
Several weeks ago, and a few days after we planted our okra seeds outside, I found two little sweeties at the okra bed poking their little fingers in the ground all over the dirt. These two have done this many times, and I’ve asked them many times not to, so it’s hard to stay patient. They had poked about 30 or so holes in the bed while the other kids and I were picking weeds in another spot. I told them when you plant seeds, and the baby seedlings are trying to come up through the soil, they are very fragile and if you poke them, it will hurt them and we won’t get to eat okra. They stopped and a week or so later when all of our okra was up and the section where their finger holes were had nothing growing, I showed them how it made the plants go away. They understood it better and have not done it since.
This week we were picking some very ripe radishes that grew up huge while my family and I were on vacation. On the edge of the radish bed, we have a row of onions. This is the first time we’ve had any success growing onions and the bulbs are visible on the top. We are so excited, but I want us to have full grown onions, so when the kids keep asking to pick the onions, I keep saying they are not ready yet. Each person was taking turns getting a big old radish when I turn around and see someone with an onion in their hand. Look I got a radish! (Ah, that’s the onion I just told you not to pick when you asked me two seconds ago.) Oh sweetie, that’s an onion, see, smell it, let’s find you a radish to pick. It’s a process of learning that things cannot be perfect and my suggestions is to plant extra so mistakes can be made and you can still have something to eat. Even for the bigger kids it’s tough to leave the plants alone long enough to get a harvest. It’s hard for any of us to wait!
Realize that a lot of the time in your gardening, you and the kids might look like an episode with Lucy and Ethel, but with 7 of them and 1 of us, we can’t make sure everyone is doing the best things for the garden every second. I don’t think any child should be made to garden if they are not interested. So for our situation, we got a couple of sets of big plastic animals and moved a table and chairs into the garden, so the kids who don’t want to garden have something to play with besides baby plants. That helped a lot. I do want them to be able to play in the dirt and experience the garden in many ways, not just my way.
I have a few tips that have helped me to help the kids be successful. I taught the kids what their knuckles were and what they do for our fingers. I tell them to plant a seed one knuckle keep or two knuckles or whatever is appropriate for that seed according to the package. The older kids of course are bigger, so I tell them a different number, but when we are all planting, it works well. Even the littlest one year olds do fairly well with the knuckle instructions.
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With the littlest kids, try to let them plant the larger seeds. When I let them plant carrots and lettuce, it’s pretty much all in one spot, but that’s okay. If you want a better harvest, you can mix them with sand and let them sprinkle them out of a salt shaker or something like that. But if you give them larger seeds such as corn, beans, or squash, it’s easier for them to get them close to the right place. A good method that worked for us this year was an older child or I would place the seeds all over the bed where we wanted the plants to grow and then we invited all the younger kids over to help us push them in one or two knuckles deep, whatever the seed calls for. We found when planting a lot of seeds, as we did this year because our garden is pretty big now, it is very effective.
Don’t be discouraged because over time, the kids do get better at knowing what a good thing is and what is not so good to do in the garden. Planting some super quick growing stuff helps the kids not lose interest in the garden. For instance not many kids like to eat radishes, a few do, but they are not a favorite, but they grow from seed to ready to eat in about 25 days. There is more instant gratification in something that you get to taste sooner. Also, radishes can be planted as early as February in Oklahoma, much earlier than a lot of things. They can see radishes coming up out of the ground while they are still waiting to see anything happen with the carrots or green beans. Radishes are pretty fool proof as well. Throw the seeds, and you’ll get radishes. They move each other if they need more room, no need to thin them and every seed seems to grow no matter how you plant them. I gave some seeds to my kids to take home and one little girl spilled her radishes in the car so mom threw them out on the driveway while she was cleaning her seat out. Earlier this week she sent me a message that they had radishes growing in their gravel driveway. Radishes will survive! Squash grows fast in the garden and okra does once it gets hot, so those are great to plant with the kids as well.
Make sure when you are gardening with the kids to keep it fun. They will want to garden if they see that you want to. Also, make sure to have your stuff organized before the kids come so you will have more chances for success. Don’t get them all out there and then think of where you keep your seeds.
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Have a plan, work in small bits at a time, and don’t try to take on too big of a garden to start with. See how it goes before you add more. Remember you have to be willing to work the garden in your time off to help them. Kids love to plant and harvest, but picking weeds, not so much. A lot of the building and maintenance of the garden will be up to you when the kids are gone. Make sure you can see your garden spot from your play area so you can pick weeds a little longer after the kids get bored. They can run off and swing or slide and you can work a little longer and still watch them.
Have fun in the learning process. I am VERY type A and when we were first growing, I wanted all the rows straight and each seed to sprout and everything to be perfect. That isn’t going to happen. So enjoy the chaos, and the garden will teach you many things if you let it.

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