Spring is (nearly) upon us, which means planting season is just around the corner! Involving your child in growing a vegetable garden provides many emotional, educational, and physical benefits to the child, regardless of age! Young babies can benefit from sensory stimulation of watching light filter between leaves and playing with produce, and older children can help with chores from weeding to harvesting. Not only do these provide sensory activities to children, but it also helps them develop important skills from fine motor coordination to gross motor skills
“My two year old helps me plant seed starts indoors. She’s not quite gentle enough to do the actual planting, but she can mix the soil with water, fill the starter pots, and spray the seedlings with water. Since we picked out seeds from the store she hasn’t been able to stop talking about it!” – Gretchen H.
Age-Appropriate Garden Chores for Young Children
Maybe your two-year-old is too young to wield a hoe and your toddler can’t be trusted not to taste-test things in the garden that shouldn’t be tasted, but there are many chores young children can do to help in the garden!
Your youngest children will get the most benefit from fresh air, sunshine, and a good dose of play!
- Shake-a shake-a. Let your younglings shake (unopened) seed packets to hear the sound.
- Leaf light play. Place them on a blanket under a tree to watch the light move between leaves.
- Texture exploration. As parents, we’re sometimes tempted to ensure our child is always on a soft, clean surface, but for many children, early exploration to different textures can provide great benefits to their brain development (and decrease excessive sensitivity to these textures in the future). Give your baby tummy time outside where their hands can reach and grab grass. Let them sit on the wood chips on your garden paths, or place them in the dirt while you work so they can explore the clumps with their hands and feet.
- Pint-sized potting. Give them a small pot of their own with dirt to play in (make sure it doesn’t have any harmful chemicals in it). If you’re worried about contaminated dirt (or bugs), you can make your own taste-safe soil from ground up cheerios, graham crackers, or chocolate cookies if you’re not into the idea of dirt occasionally making it into the mouth.
- Produce exploration. Once it’s time to harvest, sacrifice a couple awkward tomatoes, small zucchini, raspberries, or other tasty-when-tasted, age-appropriate produce to your toddler. Let them play, throw, chew, and taste test while you fill your basket with goods for the family. This early exploration of fresh produce can help them be more willing to try fresh fruits and vegetables in the future and gives them great sensory exploration with the textures, smells, colors, and tastes of different produce.
2-3 Years Old
As your child gets a little older, they can start to help with more tasks around the garden
- Mix-a mix-a. Let your child help with your seed starts by mixing soil with water and placing it in the your seed trays. Yes, it will be messy and won’t be perfect, but it helps with motor coordination and helps increase their investment and joy in your garden.
- Spray the seedlings. Let your child help spray seedlings as they begin to grow. Let them help you check on the seedlings every day or two and watch their wonder and amazement as the first seedlings start to pop free from the soil.
- Harvest time. Toddlers LOVE to be able to help (even though it doesn’t alway seem that way). Take the time to teach them which fruits and vegetables are ready to help and how to tell, then let them help you harvest the produce from the plants. Try not to hover and over-correct too much or they may get frustrated and give up. They’ll make some mistakes and you’ll probably end up with a handful of green tomatoes and dirt in your basket, but this early exposure to the produce and sense of ownership provides a number of emotional and physical benefits as well as increasing the likelihood that they’ll try the produce when you cook with it.
- Taste test herbs. Herbs are such a fun part of the garden when you have children. Not only can your child enjoy the smell and texture, but the taste as well. Let your child help you harvest herbs from the herb garden, talk about the different smells, show them how to rub leaves between their fingers to enhance the scent, and see which tastes they like the best. Be sure to reinforce that not all leaves are always safe to eat and to always talk to a grown up before taste testing anything from a garden or park.
- Cooking with produce. We know that children who take part in cooking processes are more likely to try new foods. Letting children cook in the kitchen also has massive benefits for physical and educational development, from math and reading to fine motor skills and coordination. Let your child help you bake zucchini bread, caprese salad, roasted squash, or other fun garden recipes.
4-6 Years Old
Once your child are a little older and more coordinated, they can help with complex garden chores.
- Weeding. By now, your child can probably start to distinguish between plant and weed. Make sure to provide clear instructions and plenty of examples, and let them weed alongside you.
- Bug hunter. Let your little preschooler help remove harmful pests from plants. They may like to keep a caterpillar friend in a bug box to watch them develop over the season, or may prefer to relocate them to a safer spot in the garden. Letting them help you release ladybugs into your garden can also be a lot of fun for children of all ages.
- Water the garden. They may be a little heavy handed with the hose, but your preschooler is probably getting strong enough to help you water the garden. Be as encouraging as possible while making sure your plants don’t get too much attention.
- Picking out & planting seeds. With a little more fine motor control, your child is probably ready to help you pick out and plant seeds. This is especially true for larger, easier-to-handle seeds like peas and corn.
It can be so, so incredibly beneficial for your child to help in the garden. It will probably be messy and imperfect, and you may have more seeding casualties than you do without the extra little hands, but focus on the benefits gardening provides your child and these extra challenges can be easily overlooked. From self-confidence and motor coordination to mental development and sensory exploration, gardening can be a, well, garden of learning of a child.