The Rewards of Gardening with Toddlers
It’s common knowledge that getting outside in the fresh air is good for both mind and body, but did you know that gardening also has excellent developmental benefits for toddlers?
Gardening encourages healthy eating. Children who have planted fruit and vegetables are proud of what they produce and soon munch away as happily on their own beans, broccoli, peas and carrots as they do the sweeter strawberries and raspberries.
It promotes fine motor skills. Making a small hole in the soil, popping in a tiny seed, covering it and pouring on water are all actions that require control and strength, both skills which will benefit their writing, drawing and cutting abilities.
Gardening provides a lesson in responsibility. Plants will only stay healthy if the toddler looks after them.
All a child's senses are stimulated: they see the colours of the flowers and vegetables, they can smell their scents, touch the soil and hold a worm etc, hear the sound of their trowel in the soil, and eventually taste their vegetables.
Toddlers are introduced to rudimentary science, in particular a bit of botany, chemistry and biology.
Maths skills are improved: children can count out the seeds, measure the plants as they grow and plot their increasing height on a graph, and can spot all the different shapes in the garden.
Of course, gardening does not always have a 100% success rate, so it’s worth bearing in mind that you might have to do some secret work behind the scenes – lifting off slugs, extra watering, replacing the odd dead plant etc. Okay so it’s cheating, but toddlers will engage more if they see all their hard work paying off! However, don’t take over – it’s important your little one sees the growing plot as their own, so assign them a small area in your garden: oversee things but let them have a go at everything. Also, even if the crop is very meagre, make sure your toddler does the harvesting and brings the crop to the table themselves, be it edible or flower arrangement. It’s important, too, to show off their garden whenever anyone comes to your house and send photos of it to grandparents etc. That way, a toddler will be proud to engage with the garden and is more likely to stick with the growing process to the end.
So which plants are the best ones for toddlers to grow?
1. Well, it’s a very good idea to centre a toddler garden around the five senses, so that gardening becomes a sensory explosion! Such a garden could include:
strongly scented plants such as honeysuckle and lavender or the scented geranium (not the usual geranium) which emits scent when brushed against – plant the latter on the edge of the bed where it will be brushed as people walk past;
herbs that can be both sniffed and tasted – try basil, mint, lemon balm;
brightly-coloured flowers that a child with love looking at and picking for the house;
rustling long ornamental grasses that are music to the ears, which also provide year-round interest to a garden – try blue fescue with its silver-blue foliage, or red-tipped green Japanese blood grass which turns vivid red in autumn;
plants that respond or feel good when touched – sensitive plants that snap shut when lightly nudged, such as the venus fly trap, or ones that attract copious butterflies or ladybirds to balance on your finger, such as borage, sweet alyssum or anise hyssop. Swaying grasses not only sound good, they feel wonderful against the hand or legs.
2. Another theme which will spark the toddler imagination is a zoo flower garden, which has in it only plants with animal names! Think tiger lily, zebra grass, bear’s foot, lamb’s ear, dog’s tooth violet, bee balm or butterfly bush (buddleja).
3. Or go for plants with funny names such as poached egg plants, chocolate cosmos or balloon flowers.
4. Plant speedy vegetables. Lettuces, radishes, tomatoes, peas, beans and herbs are all quick growers and also have the benefit of loving life in small containers. Your toddler will enjoy planting the seeds, selecting the seedlings and planting them out, and it won’t be long before they can pick, wash and eat them!
Other top tips!
Let the toddler use proper tools. Plastic children’s tools break so easily and frustrate the gardener! There’s not much harm in letting a toddler use a proper trowel or a hoe or spade that has had its handle cut down to size.
Start composting. This is a great way to teach children the importance of recycling waste and looking after worms.
And when there’s a lull in the growing process and interest starts to wane, take time out to build a tiny fairy garden in the gardening bed or a toddler-sized scarecrow from worn out clothes!