For teachers and schools just dipping their feet into nature programming, gardening can be the perfect first step. Gardening doesn’t take a lot of space or expertise, is easy to maintain and rewards children with flowers, fruits or vegetables they can call their own.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of connecting with Master Gardener Chris Eirschele, author of “The Kid Gardener’s Planting Book.” She reminded me that there are all different types of gardeners and all different types of gardens. She cautions that pushing kids to “dig in” may actually dilute their interest in gardening. Her words affected how we organize our class time in the garden. Instead of leading the whole group in a single planting activity, we offer choices to children in the garden in much the same way that most preschool offer center choices inside the classroom.
Offer Choices in the Garden
While we all go into the garden together, we are not all engaged in the same activity. I usually invite children to join a main project, such as, planting new seeds or starts, harvesting vegetables, prepping soil or cleaning and caring for tools. However, keeping Ms. Eirschele’s words in mind, I recognize that not all children are excited to grow vegetables. Therefore, my preschoolers have a number of options besides the main project while they are in the garden.
Some children may be more interested in the insects or in the compost pile. Some prefer the sensory experiences of touching and smelling the soil, caterpillars, petals, and leaves. Children also have the freedom to taste test right off the plant, although we do require that children ask a teacher before tasting. (While we do maintain a completely edible organic garden, inedible weeds do make their way in. Confirming with an adult that something is safe to taste is a good habit for children to develop.) Trowels, mini-rakes, scoops and other tools are available for digging. Sometimes children use them to weed, but most of the time they are searching for worms or insects or just trying to dig the deepest hole, turning the soil in the process.
Choose Child-Sized Tools
When we do offer tools for children to use, we make sure they help children engage with the garden without frustrating them or compromising safety. Tools work best when they are kid-sized. We use trowels, hand forks or rakes, and just plain old kids’ scissors for pruning and harvesting. We also use plastic scoopers to gather and turn soil. These can be repurposed from pet food containers, protein drink mixes or another source. We sometimes bring rulers into the garden to help us know when vegetables are ready for harvest. This past spring, I pre-cut a measured length of a stick so that the children could hold it next to the peas to see if they were ready to pick.
In addition to the vegetable beds, each child also maintains his or her own ceramic planter, seeded with flowers or vegetables of their choosing. While we are in the garden, they are encouraged to weed and water their planters, as well as taking turns watering the main garden.
Our garden is not just for growing and digging. When the weather allows, we bring a basket of books into the garden as it makes a delightfully cozy spot to curl up with a good book. We always have a basket of small plastic creatures that “live” in the garden – frogs, turtles, lizards, dinosaurs, insects – for children’s dramatic play among the plants. Soon, I am hoping to mount a couple of clear acrylic plates on the fences so that children can paint while they are in the garden.
Find Space for a Garden
Wildwood Nature School’s garden consists of three raised beds enclosed in a fenced area. The beds have plenty of open space around them for walking, for additional potted planters and for tool storage. However, a school garden doesn’t need to be a “formal” area of your playground. Our space is enclosed because of its proximity to the forest and animals who would like to share our bounty. Another school’s garden could be a single raised bed on the playground, an edging of soil near a fence or even a row of large ceramic planters.
Gardening rewards children’s efforts with a tangible product. Set aside a section of the schoolyard for planting, provide children with tools and inspiration, and let them participate in choosing what to plant -- or even whether to plant at all. Once children find what interests them – whether it’s planting or collecting insects – our job as teachers is to help them pursue that interest. They are much more likely to enjoy gardening if the motivation comes from within. Nature, in the form of insects and worms, will be attracted to the garden as well, providing a perfect setting for learning and appreciation of how humans are connected to the natural world.