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Kids’ Gardening: Memories and Dirty Hands
by Patti Marie Travioli - May 2015

It doesn’t matter how old kids are when it comes to the garden. Starting tomato seedlings indoor prompts all kinds of questions from the writer’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Lilah.

The most vivid memories of my childhood are those that I spent outside, especially in the summer. Besides the usual outdoor playing that kids do, going to the beach and camping, one of my favorite things to do was to harvest the vegetable garden.

My mom would ask me if I wanted to check to see if anything was ripe, and before she could finish her sentence, I was out the door, hoping to find the perfect slicing tomato or snap bean to be included in our next meal.

Our small vegetable garden was in our backyard, nestled between a half-acre of finely groomed turf and the woods. With a quick sprint across the lawn, I would soon enter this amazing world. I felt the warmth of the sun on my face and the cool dirt under my feet as I walked up and down the neatly organized rows, searching for the perfect fruit. The whole time, I was distracted by the questions in my head about the beauty and power that I felt the plants held over me. How do they do that? I couldn’t rely only on my sight or touch. I needed to smell and taste to determine if something was ready to pick. I don’t know how long I would be in the garden because I would lose track of time. I would hear my mom’s faint voice in the distance calling me to come inside.

Make Childhood Memories

When my oldest daughter was just a few months old, my parents and I took her along with us to go pick strawberries at a local U-Pick arm. She sat in her baby carrier napping while we picked, moving her along the row just as we did with our small crates of berries. We crawled on our hands and knees, up and down between the strawberry rows, or sometimes straddling and bending over the row in search of the perfect strawberry. We ate our fair share of fresh, sweet, bright red strawberries, which was encouraged by the farmer. Recently, my daughter called me to see if I could help her find a U-Pick farm in her state, where she could take her family. I look forward to the experience of strawberry picking and making jam with my granddaughters.

You are never too old or too young, too abled or disabled to do something in the garden. You don’t even need to know how to garden. There is something for everyone to enjoy. Getting out in the garden is the first step. You don’t even have to have a garden; there are many public and community gardens where you can participate. Gardening can be educational, therapeutic, exhilarating, exhausting, exploratory and fun.

Whether you garden indoors or out, when deciding what plants to grow, choose plants with sturdy stems or soft leaves which are easiest for kids to handle.

Approve of Dirty Hands

When you enter a garden with small children, you may want to start out showing them where they should walk. A simple walk through the garden will appeal to all of a child’s senses, followed by questions of what and why. Allow them to touch the dirt, the plants, even hold and observe an insect. Gloves can be saved for another time. Instead, teach children about hand washing after playing outside and before eating. It’s good to get your hands dirty and fingertips stained green from plants. Bees are good and aphids are not. Exploring and understanding the differences between good and bad bugs can have a permanent effect on how children react to the natural world as adults. For the majority of the time, it’s not necessary to reach for a pesticide, especially when children are in the garden.

It’s important to find a task that is age appropriate. As soon as a child can hold a watering can, give him or her the fun job of watering. When it comes to weeding, I make sure that I weed alongside of the kids. I have found that it’s best to show them how to recognize what plant you want to keep, and how the others in that area need to go. It’s not about completing each task thoroughly. It’s more about introducing the activity and enjoying the interaction.

Harvest the Fun

Harvesting is the favorite part of any food garden. Growing food not only teaches kids about gardening, it can also teach them about community. Inviting friends over for a garden snack is a really good way to encourage helpers to the garden.

Just being outdoors in the garden with you may not solicit a lot of help from teenage kids, but the experience of the surrounding natural world will engage them without any effort.

When deciding what plants to grow with children, start with those that appeal to the senses, followed by the types that grow rather quickly, such as beans, peas or lettuce. Plants that take longer to grow, but are good to eat in the garden, include cherry tomatoes, carrots and peas.

I love to grow sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) with kids. You can make a sunflower house out of the taller heirloom ‘Mammoth’. The sunflower heads can be collected in the fall, just as the birds start to eat them, and then harvested and saved until the following growing season. Release the seeds by rubbing two heads together. Wear gloves for this since the sunflower stem will have many dried hair-like structures that can poke little hands.

Make sure to mention houseplants or seeds that can be started indoors, when talking to kids about gardening. A tabletop grow light will prove to be a good investment and provides the light needed to grow plants during the shorter days of winter. Other tools may include magnifying glasses, and small garden tools to fit little hands. A small wagon will allow even the smallest gardener to deliver tools to the garden or a bountiful harvest to the kitchen.

School Gardens Teach Nature

School gardens have become increasingly popular, connecting children with where their food comes from, along with the educational aspect that can be incorporated in the classroom. Research is also showing the connections between nature experiences and improved behavioral health in children.

You don’t have to be a teacher to educate children about gardening. You just need be the person to get them outside and let nature do the teaching. It can be done in any type of garden or outdoor setting. Plant the seed, watch it grow, harvest the fruit and carry on the tradition. Who knows, with little effort, maybe you will prompt a child’s fondest memories.

Spending the day at a public greenhouse or garden can appeal to all of your senses as well as introduce children to the world of plants, especially those they may not be as familiar with as the ones they find in their own backyard.


Patti Marie Travioli is the mother of three who was known to leave notes on the weekends: “I’m in the garden, come find me when you wake up.” Today, her adult kids still sleep in and know where she is. These days, she wakes up her grandchildren and takes them to the garden with her in hopes of instilling the love of growing things.


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