Dirt, Worms, Bugs, and Mud: Fun and Learning for Kids in the Garden

Fun and Learning for Kids in the Garden -- Children who garden grow in many ways.

GardeningWhat do kids see when you offer them an empty plot of earth and tell them it’s theirs to garden? At first, just a large patch of dirt to mess around in. But there’s much more to working in the earth than a chance to manipulate mud.

Children who garden grow in many ways. As they’re taught to cooperate with the natural world, they learn patience, how to plan, how to follow directions and how to observe results. They develop an awareness of natural cycles. Their interest in nutrition and their feelings of self-reliance increase when the things they plant become foods they can eat.

As you and your child combine forms, sizes and colors of plants into an attractive whole, gardening turns into an art form. Creativity blossoms, too, as the child discovers that most of the "rules" of gardening are flexible and open to experimentation. Gardening is a wonderful family activity.

Deciding Where and What

Contain your plants. Many vegetables and flowers grow well in either indoor or outdoor pots. Once your plot or pots are chosen, help your child begin researching what to plant. Visit your local nurseries for advice on what’s appropriate for beginners in your environment. For speedier and more certain results, plant seedlings instead of seeds – though your child will miss out on the excitement of seeing that first sprout peeking through the soil.

With container gardening, you control the soil and drainage, and you can avoid most garden pests. In 3- to 5-gallon pots, you can grow beans, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, corn, broccoli, cabbage, kale, leeks and even melons. Pots as small as 4- to 6-inches are fine for growing peas (choose shorter peas, ones that grow to about a foot), lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard. Choose medium size pots for beets, eggplant and cherry tomatoes. Of course, all of your pots will need plenty of sun and water.

Go for speed – and taste. For your youngest gardeners-in-training, fast-growing flowers or vegetables are a good choice. For dramatic results, sunflowers are a sure bet for outgrowing your child in height. Carrots and radishes grow fairly quickly and can be eaten raw – but since they grow underground, there’s not much to see. Peas and beans grow into vines rapidly and are tasty to most kids.

Reap what you sow. Children often want to plant seeds left over from fruits (peach pits, apple seeds, watermelon seeds). If your climate is conducive and you have the space, try planting some peach pits in a corner of the yard. Within about three years, some tasty fruit may appear.

Planning and Preparing


Outdoor garden chores can overwhelm a child, so think small.

Get some real garden tools and teach your child to use and care for them.

Have your child draw a map of the proposed garden, showing where each plant will be placed. (Tip: If you’re planting sunflowers or Indian corn, put them on the north side of the garden so that when they grow tall, they won’t block sunshine from the other plants.)

Let your child decide how to mark and identify what’s planted. They may want to write or draw on wooden craft sticks or on the plastic markers sold at nurseries, or attach empty seed packets to sticks.

Preparing the soil is critical. For a 5-by-5-foot garden, work a large sack of peat moss and a large sack of air-dried cow manure into the top 8 inches of soil. For potted plants, add some peat moss to a packaged soil mixture.

Keep it fun by playing it safe. Your child should wear gloves when working with tools or rough materials. Use sunscreen when working outdoors. Stay away from all garden poisons and wash up after rummaging among plants or weeds.

Fun and Learning


SeedlingGardening is an opportunity to learn, but keeping it fun is the surest way to keep kids interested. Follow these tips:


The best results come from paying attention to each plant’s individual needs. Your child will learn that plants generally like to be watered deeply only when they dry out (too much water kills more plants than not enough water does). Weeding is necessary because weeds crowd the plants’ roots and steal their nutrients. Rows of seedlings need to be thinned as soon as they begin to get crowded.


Put landscaping in child-size language. Describe it as "framing" some plants with others, as an artist frames a painting, for example. Place red flowers where they’ll pick up the red of bricks or a redwood pot, blend with pink flowers nearby, or contrast with white flowers or walkways. This kind of activity helps your child develop a sense of color harmony and order.

Grow your own catnip, a member of the mint family. Purchase a small piece from a garden center, catalog or pet supply store. Plant it in a well-drained sunny or partially shady area, in a mixture of soil, sand, peat moss, compost and lime. Water, weed and wait. After harvesting, you can dry some by hanging it upside down, out of the sun, in a dry, ventilated place.

Grow some edible plants and add them to soups, salads, beverages and desserts. The following are OK to eat: peonies, pansies, nasturtiums, dandelions, day lilies, squash flowers, elder flowers, carnations, violets, marigolds and sunflowers. Do not eat wisteria, holly, bird of paradise, hydrangea, oleander, poinsettia or philodendron.

Resources  The National Gardening Association’s youth site.

Grow Your Own Pizza: Gardening Plans and Recipes for Kids by Constance Hardesty, Fulcrum Publishing, 2000. Ages 7 and up. This unusual activity guide features garden plans for creating various pizzas, plus how-tos for "planting" cake and ice cream, carrots stuffed with spinach soufflÈ and other goodies.

Jack’s Garden, by Henry Cole, Mulberry, 1997. Ages 4 to 9. Beginning with "This is the garden that Jack planted," words and pictures detail how the parts of nature connect and grow together.

The Kids Can Press Jumbo Book of Gardening, by Karyn Morris, Kids Can Press, 2000. Ages 4 to 8. Offers tips on how to attract butterflies, what vegetables to grow, which flowers smell the sweetest and more.

To turn gardening into a mini-science project, go to Experiments for Budding Gardeners.

For more activities that combine fun and learning, go to the Playing Smart Archives.

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4 to 14 (Free Spirit Publishing, 2001), from which her columns are adapted. Check out Susan¹s Web
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