Encouraging a Love of Dirt

Today I would like to welcome Dionna, who has written a guest post on gardening with children. She is a lawyer turned work at home mama, and she’s one of those crunchy liberals her parents warned her about. You can normally find Dionna on her fabulous blog, Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler. Today, I have a guest post there. So, once you’re done reading Dionna’s thoughts on gardening with children head on over to see what I have to say on the same subject.

Gardening for me is more than just a way to save money by growing vegetables. It is humbling. Miraculous. Exhausting. It is an exercise in delayed gratification. It physically connects me to the Earth. Gardening tests my patience while strengthening my spirit.

My husband shakes his head at me year after year, wondering why I am so anxious to break ground when I’ve never had (what some would call) a “successful” garden. He doesn’t get it: I like the challenge. And I love working the dirt.

I want our 27 month old son, Kieran, to experience gardening. I want to introduce him to the beauty, surprise, and magic that can be found when you put a handful of seeds in the ground. He may never love to garden, but I want to expose him enough that he has the option.

With that in mind, I have compiled ten fun gardening activities appropriate for all ages of children, but particularly suitable for toddlers and preschoolers. Enjoy!

10 Unique Gardening Activities for Kids

1. Grow a Playhouse: Imagine being three years old and surrounded by gigantic sunflowers towering above you, or crawling into a teepee made of sticks and overgrown with pea pods, or engulfed in a square of moonflowers that open up when the crickets start to sing. Flowering playhouses are easily built (by a parent) out of wooden poles and string. Plant the seeds around the poles, then gently train the flowers to wind around and through them. (1)

2. Grow Something to Wear: Let your children play dress-up with their flowers. Turn colorful blossoms into necklaces, leis, or bracelets. Clip flowers into your daughter’s barrettes or thread one through your son’s shirt button. Save pretty petals to make jewelry.

3. Plant a Rainbow: Find flower seeds in the colors of the rainbow, then help your child plant them in a rainbow shape. Try to find flowers that are roughly the same size and make sure they are all appropriate for the same season.

4. Plant Something Weird: Appeal to your child’s love for the unexpected. Plant purple and red carrots, blue potatoes, or purple beans. Grow miniature or “midget” versions of the vegetables we usually see like peas, corn, or lettuce.

5. Attract Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Create beauty on and above the ground by planting flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. (2)

6. Grow Plants that are Nice to Touch or Fun to Hear: Your toddler will love “tickle me” plants; the leaves curl up when touched. Lamb’s Ears have a fuzzy silvery fur that kids like to touch. If you garden indoors, aloe vera plants are a good tactile choice for small children. You can also try bunny tails and cotton to satisfy a child’s sense of touch. (3)

On windy days, your toddler will love to listen to the sounds made by ornamental grass, the Chinese lantern plant, or the Money plant. (4)

7. Grow a Craft Project: Grow gourds that you can turn into birdhouses or musical instruments. Grow flowers and berries that you can use for their natural dyes, which your child can use for artwork and other crafts. There are even certain plants with beads that can be used in jewelry.

8. Garden in Unusual Containers: Who says you have to plant seeds in the ground? Give your child a fun container (also a great way to garden inside). You can use an old shoe, a discarded toy, or a plain pot with a face drawn on. Or trap a cucumber in a glass jar.

9. Create a Scratch & Sniff Garden: Please your child’s nose with an assortment of smells: plant mint that smells (and tastes!) like chocolate peppermint, ginger, lemon, orange, and apple, and geraniums that smell like roses, lemon, mint, chocolate, pine, nutmeg, and more.

10. Eat Your Vegetables and Your Flowers: Ground cherries are hidden in pods that look like little lanterns. Grow a pizza patch garden full of tomatoes, peppers, basil, garlic, and other veggies and herbs that can be baked into homemade pizza. Apartment dwellers: did you know you can grow peanuts inside?

For a completely new level of edible fun, try growing flowers you can eat: nasturtium, clover, and lavender are just a few tasty varieties.

A Few Guidelines to Gardening with Children

Here are some simple tips to help keep gardening with kids fun and easy:

1. Give your child her own space and tools.
2. Let your child have some control over what he grows. Choose a few ideas/varieties that are doable, then let your child pick his favorite to try.
3. Relax! Let her do her own thing. Don’t worry if she spends more time playing with the dirt or worms than she does pulling weeds.
4. Consider planting a mixture of seeds, seedlings, and full-grown plants. It can be hard for little ones to wait for those first sprouts to pop out of the ground. (5)

Do you have any fun ideas for gardening with children? Detailed instructions for a sunflower (or moonflower) playhouse. Instructions for building your own teepee and ideas for seeds to plant around it. Nature Moms Blog has more ideas for flowering playhouses. There are also two books dedicated to growing sunflower houses.
(2) Butterfly Gardens; Hummingbird Gardens
(3) Check out this article for more plants that react to touch.
(4) Always research flowers/plants before growing them. Some – like the Chinese lantern plant – have parts that are poisonous if eaten.
(5) More general tips for gardening with kids –
*Gardening with Kids has a wealth of information and ideas, including The Basics and For the Youngest Beginner;
*Ten Tips on Gardening with Kids; and
*Toddler Garden

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  1. And for all of the links embedded in this post, I actually forgot one excellent book: Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots: Gardening Together with Children (by Sharon Lovejoy).
    She has detailed instructions for several fun children’s garden ideas, including the Sunflower house.
    .-= Dionna @ Code Name: Mama´s last post ..Gardening with Little Helpers =-.

  2. Thank you for a great list. I always forget about the gourds and they do so well here in AZ. They have to be planted during the monsoons.

    Close to the house we have a garden that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, we can see it from the living room window and in the heat of the summer this is a pastime that occupies all members of the family, watching. Digging books out that my child can look at and identify birds from helps.

    The other thing we spend time in the yard doing is looking for evidence of insects.
    .-= Tepary´s last post ..Tucson Treasure – Crafternoon and Citrus Bloom =-.

  3. Oh, and I almost forgot. Have you seen this?

    .-= Tepary´s last post ..Tucson Treasure – Crafternoon and Citrus Bloom =-.

  4. Insert.Guilt.Here.

    I grew up on a grain farm with a massive garden. We grew enough onions and potatoes and other stuff to get us through the winter.

    And now, suburban me doesn’t garden. It’s the making time for it that I find challenging. For now, writing feeds my soul more. But I feel guilty for not sharing this with my kids.

    Maybe I’ll grow some vegetables in a container this year. Just maybe.
    .-= Ironic Mom´s last post ..5 Stupid Comments Made to Parents of Twins =-.

  5. I also grew up in the midst of a huge garden and have no wish to re-create it for my son. The garden consumed my parents’ lives so they wouldn’t go traveling anywhere, weekends were spent tackling one enormous overgrown border or another, I spent more weekends as a child than I care to remember walking around garden centres staring at plants which all looked the same, being yelled at for standing on the plants, harvesting endless lines of vegetables, listening to mum grumble about having to prep said veggies, …… although I also had great fun running around in that amazing playground sorry, but i just cannot summon up enough to wax lyrically about The Garden.
    We grow things in troughs, I have some houseplants, we actually leave the house and go out to see things these days, see other bits of nature growing er naturally ….
    … moderation peeps! It’s a way of ‘growing your own’, not some mystical enterprise. If the kiddos love it they’ll do it themselves in their own good, self-sufficient time!
    .-= pomomama aka ebbandflo´s last post ..Friday forte: the old edition =-.

  6. Thank you, Dionna, for such a thorough post full of resources. I hope that you and Kieran have a great time gardening together!

  7. Great tips! A. is just getting excited about digging in the dirt and I am looking forward to letting his wear his work! Thanks Dionna!
    .-= Old School/ New School Mom´s last post ..The Top 10 Reasons Why Staying Home is Hard =-.

  8. Tepary – we used to live in NM, and I miss the Southwest foliage and wildlife! We lived in an apartment, though, so no gardens for us. I had not seen that link about sunflowers – I will check it out, thank you!

    Ironic Mom – maybe you could find a way to combine them. Grow a few veggies in containers, take lots of pictures, and then write about the experience 🙂

    Pomomama – I completely agree, everything in moderation. My hubby and I were talking about where/when we want to take vacation this summer. He mentioned “but who will take care of the garden?” I’m not worried – I’ve got plenty of friends and neighbors who would happily water once a week in exchange for whatever produce they can pick! And if stuff dies? It’s no worse than what I can do to it on my own 😉

    Amber – thank you! I encourage everyone to come read Amber’s wonderful post on Code Name: Mama today!

    Old School/New School Mom – I’m so happy that Kieran isn’t as squeamish about dirt this year. Getting dirty is FUN!
    .-= Dionna @ Code Name: Mama´s last post ..Gardening with Little Helpers =-.

  9. One of the special memories I have about gardening and my children is the year I grew sugar pie pummpkins (a small one, good for pie).

    Once the pumpkins got to be about baseball-sized, I went out one day when the girls were elsewhere, and used a straight pin to write their names in the skins. I used cursive, because I normally print.

    When the pumpkins grew to full size (between softball and volleyball size) and were harvested, I had a blast reinforcing the fact that God knows all about them, knows them by name, and cares.

    .-= Trece´s last post ..Will this count for Eternity? =-.

  10. Love these creative ideas, Dionna!
    .-= AmberDusick´s last post ..Announcing the Arrival of (ceramics kiln) AKA – She Still Needs a Name! =-.

  11. These are really great ideas! I especially love the idea of planting flowers in a rainbow shape and building a playhouse with sticks and twine. And the container thing? So cool. My favorite gardens are the ones planted inside old boats, wheelbarrows, boots and my step-mom even has one in an old sink they attached to the side of their house. I wish we had better soil at my house to build a really nice garden, and more sun here too. But as long as we’re digging out in the dirt, I guess I’m happy for now.
    .-= Melodie´s last post ..March Love Links =-.

  12. I love these ideas! I never would of considered trying to make a play fort out of my peas or sunflowers. What a cool idea. The kids are always in my garden anyway, maybe if I arrange my plantings properly they can play in there without killing everything.
    .-= Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves´s last post ..Potty Training: A Bump in the Road (and Potty Dance) =-.

  13. Wow — very creative and thorough. My approach was more the blind-faith planting at will and letting my kids dig where they wanted to — I wish I’d read this then. My daughter will probably be into planting her own little garden this summer, though. Great post

  14. You just answered my question on how to start a garden with my girls. I thought of planting a few flowers in containers this year, I don’t know why I didn’t think the same for any other gardening I might want to do.

    Thanks for all of the links. I’m looking forward to coming back and checking them out. I especially love the idea of a sunflower playhouse.
    .-= Darcel´s last post ..Life. On Mondays: Mornings =-.

  15. Great article, great ideas! We’ll be doing a few pots on our own this year and hopefully several trips to my brother’s garden, but I can’t wait for next year when we’ll be in our own space again. I’ll go garden crazy, I can feel it!

  16. Trece – I read about that very same idea, it is so cute! If my pumpkins grow this year (they got maybe tennis ball sized last year then petered out) I’m going to try Kieran’s name.

    Thank you, AmberDusick!

    Melodie – I’m trying to think of something fun we could repurpose into a planter here. I know Kieran would get a kick out of it.

    Marilyn – I really love the idea of peas, last year Kieran loved to eat them off the vine, so why not grow some especially for that purpose!

    Allison – I think there’s a lot to be said for planting on blind faith alone 😉

    Darcel – I want pictures! 🙂

    Acacia – I’m sure you will go crazy once you have your own space!
    .-= Dionna @ Code Name: Mama´s last post ..Gardening with Little Helpers =-.

  17. Johanne says:

    Timely!! I just bought materials to plant my 1st (ok, 2nd…) garden, and was hoping to involve DD who’s 22 months 🙂

  18. Yea, this is so fun! I have three little helpers this season (one is mine, and two are the friend whose garden I’m using), so I need ways to keep the tasks light and fun and rewarding for the little ones. i’m definitely going to try the teepee, because I love beans anyway. 🙂
    .-= Lauren @ Hobo Mama´s last post ..Bilingual carnival, writing opportunities galore, & a winner! =-.

  19. Wonderful ideas for ensuring that a child grows up to love the garden.

    Adding on to your “growing a playhouse” idea – you can do the same thing with sweet corn.

    Because corn is wind pollinated you need to grow it in a block. Leave a tiny little square unplanted in the middle of your corn patch and a few seeds missing to give you a tunnel in. Believe me, it won’t just be your child that enjoys burrowing through the corn to sit in your “green house”.

    With the corn towering up above you and the wind rustling through its leaves – it is quite magical for young and old. I’m no longer a youngster and yet I still find something inspiring about sitting in a corn house.
    Dawn @ Walking Sprinkler’s last post … How Does A Traveling Water Sprinkler WorkMy Profile

  20. I just started working on my garden. and i love your post, it really answered allot of my questions.

  21. I found the link to grow # 6 your own pet TickleMe Plant. OMG it really does move and close its leaves when Tickled.
    The kids in my Class love it.

  22. This is such a lovely post Dionna. I was browsing your blog and was redirected over here. The more inclusive parents are with their kids, the better the end result has to be for all concerned.

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