Working a Garden with Little Hands: Your Age-by-Age Guide

Whether you like to spend time in the garden or not, there is a big chance your children do! If they want to spend time playing in dirt, watching seeds sprout, and eat the fruits of their labor, why stop them? In fact, why not help them cultivate the pleasure of working in the dirt and growing their own food?

Here are a few tips to keep it fun:

To each their own

Don’t expect your children to help with your gardening, but rather help your little ones with their own! Show them the tools, answer their questions and let them explore. At first, they will get wet, dirty, walk on and drown their newly sprouting plants. They will make mistakes and eventually learn from them but, but that is not important yet. Make sure to keep their garden and yours separated to give your little ones a chance to really have fun without destroying your own plants.

For the 2-5 year old

At this age, gardening means imitating fun movements: watering, digging, sowing, planting, smelling, and picking. To keep them interested, the work needs to be playful and the results quickly visible with some rewards at the end: nibbling right on the spot! Think radishes, lettuce and sunflower (for the show), cherry tomatoes and strawberries. Coriander is fun in the summer when they get to pick the little seeds. Plant flowers to attract bees or make a bouquet for mom (think cosmos).

Keep it small so it doesn’t become a lot of work for the little hands. A small square divided into nine sections usually works well. Model how to plant and sow in your garden and then let them experiment in their own space.

For the 5-7 year old

At this age children learn about the seasons (not everything grows and gets eaten during at all seasons) and can learn about different parts of the plant as well. Now you can start explaining the why and the how as you show them what to do. Their garden can be a bit bigger to accommodate larger plants like carrots, beans, squash, more tomatoes and even potatoes. Focus on diversity rather than quantity. This is the perfect opportunity to learn about various species of the same plant (green tomatoes or pear shape, round zucchini and purple carrots). Lastly, experiment with various aromatic plants such as chive, parsley, coriander, dill, chervil… the choice is yours, or theirs!

For the 7-9 year old

More than the movements, it is now the results that matter to this age. Find them adequate space, but let them organize it how they want. You can guide their choices by teaching them about beneficial plant associations, and the specific water, sun and space needs of each plant. Involve them in buying and laying out the seeds and the plants. Then create a calendar together of what needs to be done each week/month to help them become more autonomous. Around the time your little green thumb turns ten, you can usually plant and cultivate together in the same garden space!

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