You’ve probably heard that all play and no work during the summer puts Junior’s brain on the summer slide—that loss of knowledge that hits hard when school returns in the fall. If you find yourself thinking, I wish there was a way to have fun and learn, you’re in luck. Gardening is an ideal way to do both.
If you don’t have much space, don’t worry. “Gardening can happen anywhere,” says Melissa Gula, manager of children and family programs at Denver Botanic Gardens. “Even if you don’t have a big yard or a green thumb, you can grow a plant in anything whether it’s an old yogurt cup, a plastic bag, or a fancy porch pot.”
There are also no age limits. Matthew Cole, director of education at Denver Botanic Gardens, says that there are plenty of ways for kids of all ages to participate in gardening.
What will kids learn? The lessons are endless: obviously science, but also math, reading, and even patience. It’s a full curriculum right in the dirt around your home. Consider this a nudge for everyone to get their hands dirty and enrich their minds this summer. As a bonus, kids will get time outside to be active and soak up some fresh air, another thing that research shows is essential for kids.
The Lesson Plans
Plant tiny seeds of science with younger children. Those basic lessons on life cycles bloom into experimentation and observation and may eventually inspire a more in-depth study of botany. Start with a simple discussion about the plant as a living thing, its anatomy—from roots and stem to leaves and flowers—and the basic purpose each part serves.
“Many of the (state) science standards fit with what we teach in the garden,” says Rachel Cadwallader-Staub, program coordinator at Growing Gardens in Boulder. “For example, the Pre-K standard of understanding that living things have characteristics and basic needs are explored in a hands-on manner in the garden.”
Encourage your child to ponder questions, such as, “What do plants need to grow?” “How does different weather impact the garden?” and “How does pollination work?” by observing life in the garden on a daily basis.
At Growing Gardens, students learn about the necessities a plant needs in order to grow. They call them the Fabulous Five: sunlight, water, air, soil, and space. Have your child hunt for signs of these elements in and around the garden, and add to the list if they observe other contributors to the plant’s life and growth.
Older children may want to engage in experimentation by altering the balance of each of the Fabulous Five for different plants and making hypotheses about what the right balance is.
Numbers are everywhere in a garden. Have younger children practice their numbers by counting out seeds and plants or counting the number of petals on a flower. Ask kids of all ages to help measure the depth and spacing width needed to plant each kind of seed. Once plants start to grow, little ones can measure plant growth with a ruler once a week or even daily.
Cole and Gula say that geometry can be learned in the garden, too. The garden plot itself may be a rectangle, circle, or square, and the variety of plants and their different lines and curves can make for profound geometric discovery. With a larger garden, recruit older children to help plot it out, map it, and provide you with a mathematical map of how things should be planted before you start.
As the garden produces, count and weigh the yield of each plant. How many ounces of green beans per week? How many pumpkins per vine? Younger siblings can record the numbers on a chart while older siblings can figure averages and percentages—if you planted 5 tomato plants and picked 40 tomatoes, what was the average number of tomatoes grown per plant?
From reading, to research, to writing, the garden presents an abundance of literacy-related lessons. There is a cornucopia of books about gardens and gardening to be read. One of Cole’s favorites is the children’s picture book series Plantzilla, about a third grader who adores his class plant. Take a trip to the library to find gardening books and to allow older kids to research answers to questions that arise.
Younger children can practice their letters by making labels to identify what’s been planted. Children of any age can play the role of a real-life reporter. Pop into a gardening store or flower shop and have kids interview one of the staff about a particular gardening issue or plant in which they’re interested.
All living things depend on one another, and the garden provides observable examples. There is the relationship between the soil, the plants, and the weather. Then there are companion relationships among plants themselves. Pairing certain herbs, flowers, or vegetables with other vegetable plants may create a beneficial relationship—keeping destructive bugs at bay—or could hurt the plant—deplete nutrients or attract destructive bugs. An internet search of companion planting will produce a list of good and bad garden companions.
Also, interpersonal relationships will form as you garden with someone. Your children will connect to the person with whom they’re gardening whether it’s you, a sibling, a grandparent, or a friend.
“Parents needn’t be intimidated by the garden as they can learn alongside their children, which is an idea very enriching in and of itself,” says Gula.
Growing things is an ideal practice in patience, since things don’t happen overnight. “Gardening is not just throwing a seed in the ground and you’re done,” says Cole. “Kids will gradually build knowledge over time that you have to put effort in to get something out.”
Knowing where your food comes from, how it was grown, and how eating it makes you feel are all lessons that can be learned from gardening. A child is more interested in those vegetables that he or she has grown rather than store-bought ones. There is a rainbow of vegetable colors available to plant these days. Have your child choose some purple potatoes or yellow carrots to grow, then learn about the different vitamins, nutrients, and minerals present in the various colors and varieties.
Children of all ages can sketch and color pictures of their garden and the planting they’ve done. Technology-loving kids can create a time-lapse video, by photographing the garden or a single plant in the beginning, middle, and end of the summer. If you wish to enhance your garden’s environment, look for garden stone craft kits that kids can personalize.
Of course, with any size of garden, there will be weeds. No one likes them, but pulling them can be an opportunity to work as a team. Cole suggests turning weeding into a game. See who can pick the most weeds in five minutes (winner gets a small treat), or use buckets as baskets and the weeds as balls for a rudimentary form of basketball. After a few rounds of weeding as a team, you’ll notice a lot of work has been done.
Finally, if you have a child who simply doesn’t want to get involved, task them with watering. No matter what age, anyone can handle the watering and even the most obstinate child will eventually find himself playing with water from the hose—voilà: physics.
Other Gardening Resources
The lessons found within the context of gardening are almost infinite. Here are some resources to help you further explore your own garden experience.
- Denver Botanic Gardens offers a variety of programming, events, camps, and classes throughout the year for kids of all ages.
- Growing Gardens is a Boulder nonprofit whose mission is to enrich the lives of the community through sustainable urban agriculture. Find camps and classes for kids of all ages (and adults) throughout the year.
- The Urban Farm at Stapleton in Denver offers kids practical work experience in a farm setting and offers various programming throughout the year.
- The CSU Extension Plant Talk program is a website full of easily-digestible posts on a variety of topics for your home gardening experimentation.
- Kids Gardening is a national nonprofit with a bounty of articles and ideas for gardening with kids, such as planting a flower clock or a spiral herb garden.
- The Children and Nature Network works to connect children with nature and has family-centered local gardening clubs.