“How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” ~ Psalm 104:24 (NIV)
Are your kids bouncing off the walls? Are you struggling with tiredness and a sour attitude? Here’s an idea: get your hands in the soil, and let your kids join you. Surround yourself with green. I promise, it will make everything better. God made us to be nourished by these things.
Even toddlers can gain a simple understanding of God’s creation and how they can steward it well. A great way to demonstrate this is by doing some simple gardening and intentional outside play with your children. My daughters (ages 4 and 1) are outdoor lovers because they’ve been encouraged to engage with the outdoors and dig in the soil from a young age. We’ve always had simple garden plots in our backyard that allow them the opportunity to see how things grow and have a part in the process. You don’t have to live in a house with a backyard to make this happen! Even simple herbs can be grown in pots on an urban balcony, or wherever you live that has access to water and sun.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Is this really important? And do I really have to let my kids get dirty?” Yes, I believe it’s woven into our very being to be connected to the dirt in a way that sustains us, and small children can learn that too. There’s something special that happens when you eat something you grow, even if it’s just an herb in a pot.
As a perfectionist and a mother of girls, I’m compelled to want to keep things neat and tidy, but even my daughters beg to go outside and dig in the dirt. Plus, they learn so much by hands-on play and imitating me as I work in the soil.
Here are 10 tips for gardening with kids to get you started. I hope you find something here that inspires you and your little ones!
- Let them use small garden tools. These can be the ones made for children, or just mini ones from your local home improvement store. Show your child how to dig in the dirt and that these tools are theirs. We always have a variety of these in our yard, and kids of all ages gravitate to them.
- Plant seeds and watch them grow. Kids love tiny things. They’ll love taking a seed and pushing it into the dirt, then covering it with more dirt. It’s virtually impossible to mess up sunflower seeds – we’ve grown sunflowers in our backyard accidentally, from stray seeds that fell out of our bird feeder!
- Turn on the hose. I barely turn it on so it’s just letting out a gentle stream of water, and the first time I showed my daughter how to hold it in a small watering can to fill it and then water the grass and plants, she was occupied for a solid 15-20 minutes. That’s a long time in toddler world!
- Smell and harvest herbs. My toddler loves it when I tell her it’s time to smell the herbs. I kneel down and smell the rosemary and say, “MMMM!” dramatically. She immediately wants to do the same. Now, she’ll kneel down by the herbs herself and call me over across the yard to smell them with her. You can also teach children to pinch off some herbs and harvest them for dinner.
- Give them their own plot to sow. Help them to nurture the area, identify weeds and remove them, and explain how weeds choke out the good plants. This is a great opportunity to present a very simple lesson on sin and how we can “sow good things in our soil,” like the Biblical fruit of the spirit.
- Give them a basket or bag and let them go collect things. We love these sturdy African baskets for harvesting herbs and veggies and all kinds of play. Cherry tomatoes, beans, and peas are great plants for them to harvest and gather.
- Raise caterpillars and befriend the butterflies. One of the coolest gifts my daughter ever received is this cup of 5 caterpillars that you raise into butterflies. We had so much fun checking on the chrysalises every day and built an amazing memory on the day we set our butterflies free in our backyard! You can also pledge to be a butterfly hero and get a free butterfly garden starter kit.
- Create a mud kitchen. This is definitely on my to-do list: set up a “kitchen” area outdoors using bricks or stumps and old cooking supplies like dented muffin tins. Then let them go to town! Here are a few ideas: mud kitchen #1, mud kitchen #2, mud kitchen #3.
- Decorate with wood stumps. Wood stumps = instant pretend bongo drums. They’re great to have around the yard to encourage gardening play or as a little platform to gather and arrange rocks, twigs, etc.
- Build a fairy garden. Lots of craft stores have tiny figurines to help you build a fairy garden, or you can get creative and collect items from nature or make fairies with clothespins. Plant tiny succulents that will look like big trees in your fairy garden. Succulents are very easy to grow and maintain and small hands love feeling their texture (just make sure to avoid any with needles!).
A final word: don’t freak out about dirt. Life is messy and imperfect. Embrace it!
Christine Bailey is wife to Steven and mama to four-year-old Luci Belle and 1-year-old Norah. After working in the music industry in Nashville and then helping start an African relief organization, she and her husband now own an urban farmstead and produce co-op in Dallas and love sharing meals with family and friends. In her (not so) spare time, she shares her art, photography, and writings on her blog, Dreams of Simple Life and looks for the beauty amidst the imperfection of everyday life.