How to make gardening fun for kids

As a master gardener, I work with kids of all ages on projects like tree planting and caring for beds of flowers and vegetables in neighborhood community gardens. Since I don’t have kids of my own, I’ve had to learn by trial and error what gets them excited about gardening and what pushes them into boredom and the dreaded eye-rolling mode. I’ve also learned to carry a box of Band-Aids — in case of earthworm bites. (More about this later.)

People talk a lot these days about how kids just want to sit in front of computers and never go outside. But my experience has been that most kids love the outdoors just like we did back in the prehistoric technology days of CB radios and eight-track tapes. All they need is a little help getting acquainted with what nature has to offer.   

As a children’s education instructor at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Kim Kube knows that the best way to get kids excited about something is to minimize talking and maximize opportunities for learning by doing.

It’s Kube’s job to come up with interactive gardening projects for kids ages 5–14. Projects don’t need to be elaborate to be fun and educational. Her advice is to “do things kids naturally like to do.” Watering is always a popular activity. But kids also love planting things, looking for bugs and digging in the dirt to see what they can find.

When you stop to explain things, tailor what you say to the age group. If you head out into the backyard to try planting a few things with young children, for example, take things step by step. As they follow along, explain how to dig a small hole, gently remove the plant from its pot, put the plant in the ground and water it. Once they’re finished and admiring their work, it’s great to briefly tell them things like how plants gather food from the sun and soil. But save big words like photosynthesis for older children.

Kids always want to know how stuff works. You can explain all you want what will happen to a plant if you don’t water it. But having kids conduct an experiment to see what happens if they don’t water their plants for a week helps them make the connection in a concrete way. Of course, there’s also the popular science project that we all did in school where you put seeds in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel and periodically unroll them to watch them grow. This is not only fun, it helps kids see a process they’d normally only get to see in a book.

If asked what will happen if a plant gets stepped on, Kube often tells kids to try it and find out. This kind of exploration helps bring out everyone’s natural curiosity, prompting them to ask their own questions like: What do the leaves do? What does the stem do? And how about the roots? Depending on the age group, these questions can best be answered with simple demonstrations and experiments, such as coating the backs of a plant’s leaves with petroleum jelly to illustrate what happens when a plant goes without air.

Of course, there’s always a fear factor to overcome. I don’t think I’ve ever gardened with a group of kids where at least one in the bunch (boys and girls alike) didn’t swear that earthworms bite. Hard. Though evidence of injury is hard to come by, lots of kids really believe this. As I said, I bring Band-Aids for when I just can’t convince them otherwise and we have to sop up the blood somehow. Kube, on the other hand, has learned how to use peer pressure to effectively ease this type of fear. She keeps an eye out for the kid who loves bugs in her classes. There’s always at least one. That’s the kid she hands the worms to, or the ladybugs, whatever the bug of the day may be.

Once the creature is in hand, she starts talking up the great work earthworms and ladybugs do in the garden. Eventually, even the kids who are afraid will be curious and gather around the brave bug-holding child to see what’s happening. Most wind up holding out their hands to hold the bugs, too. Kube explains to everyone about the work that worms and other decomposers do in the garden. And she encourages kids to name the worms they find in the dirt. That way children form more of a connection with the little guys, making kids less likely to be afraid or try seeing how far they can stretch the worms before they pull apart.  

Kube eases kids’ fears about bugs that really do bite or sting by talking to kids about the important roles they play in the garden. “Bees aren’t really on a mission to sting you,” Kube tells them, hoping to stop all the squishing of bees and other bugs that kids do. They’re really out in the garden helping to pollinate plants. And while spiders may seem scary, they do a great job of eating mosquitoes.

If you take kids to a public garden, stopping by a pond is always a good idea because kids love water, and there’s usually plenty of creatures and plant life to see and talk about. Try scooping up some water in a clear cup in a few different spots and see what you find. Be ready to talk about things like tadpoles, frogs and dragonflies because you’ll definitely get questions about them.

“Sometimes, though,” Kube says, “it’s the simplest things that make the best lessons.” It’s amazing how much kids notice if you just spend some time sitting with them under a tree looking up at the leaves, the trunk and the branches. If you’d like to see an area cleared of dandelions, have a quick contest to see who can dig up the dandelion with the longest root and then explain how dandelions grow and go to seed. Or just take kids outside and give them time to dig around in the dirt. When Kube does this, she’s often amazed at how kids can focus on the smallest things. “They’ll find bugs and just bring them up to me,” she says. “They want to know all about what they find, and they see things that adults never even notice.”

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to meleah@everydaygardener.com.