It is springtime again in Colorado where I live with my family in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. For us, that means a shift from short days and cold nights, to longer days and nighttime temperatures that will continue to rise throughout the summer. Many of our trees are starting their first flush and the soil is warming up enough to turn over. The longer, sunnier days are begging us to shake off that winter funk and to get outside together as a family, and gardening is the perfect way to put some spring in our collective step.
Children thrive with time spent outside digging in the soil with their hands, or with a stick that fits the bill perfectly. Again, for them it is about time spent together as a family and the chance to feel that they are part of the natural world. You don’t need a large plot or a farm to do the trick. Start with what you have, whether it is a small bit of space reserved in your yard or some containers on your balcony. Believe it or not, you don’t even need a green thumb; just match yourself with plants that can thrive on what you can offer, and go for it.
When we are getting ready to head outside, we grab large spoons from the kitchen, empty yogurt containers and any other odd bits from the kitchen that will make it fun to play in the soil now, as well as make it easier to clean up later. Once we have our items, we settle into the garden or gather around a garden pot and let the play begin. I make time and space for my son to dig and explore without any gardening goals. Tiny hands like to seek out stones, worms and wet soil to pack together. Set your seeds and starter plants away from this space of free play, and do your planting together where you can guide your child through the process and share important jobs like planting the seeds and then covering them with soil. This is a chance to talk with your child about the interconnectedness of seeds and the sun, and the rain and warmth that will go into making it come alive, and grow into it’s full potential.
Outside of the healing qualities of nature, and the precious family time together, gardening is another way to build your younger child’s vocabulary for items not normally found in our day-to-day lives. Name items like the trowel, or rake; name the types of seeds and have them explore the color, size and shapes of them. Hold worms and bugs in your hands to keep them safe and in one piece, then marvel together at the similarities and difference between each one, your child included.
For older children, gardening is a way to observe a full growth cycle in nature, taking a plant from seed to bloom, to fruit. Waiting for that little seed to emerge from the ground teaches patience and offers a sense of time that differs from the routines of our normal days. Caring for a seedling until it flowers or fruits teaches investment and reward, as well as offering your child responsibility and the chance to care for another growing thing. They also get to taste the literal fruits of their labors, and nothing teaches a child more about the taste and treat of real food than a bite of a garden ripe tomato. You can also bring your flowers and garden finds indoors for rainy day crafts, or when winter wants to toss one last snowball at you.
I recently read a comic that said, “Gardening is cheaper and quicker than therapy, and you also get tomatoes.” It is true that spending time in the natural world does us all good, adults and children alike. It clears the mind and gives our hands real purpose. So, gather up yourself and your little ones, and any items that you may need, and go make yourselves happy and dirty.