Teaching Kids to Grow Food

Teaching Children to Grow Food
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Young kids are naturally drawn to gardens, somehow. In fact, I always found it hard to keep my kids out of the garden while I worked. Believe me when I say I know this has its positive and negative side; toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for stomping - unintentionally - on seedlings, for example. Raised beds can help prevent mishaps, but giving your child her own garden will not only help protect the family's main garden, but it gives your child a superb learning experience.

The Benefits of Kids in the Garden

In one study, grade school students who gardened were better able to work in groups and were more likely to show characteristics like maturity, responsibility, and stronger interpersonal skills - including a stronger bond with parents. Kids who grow food are also more enthusiastic about eating fruits and vegetables, something many scientific studies have shown and I have witnessed personally. In addition, kids who garden score higher on science tests than kids who don’t. Gardening is also a great way to get kids outside for some exercise. (In fact, some studies link ADHD, a condition diagnosed in about 9% of American children, with too little time outdoors.) And, naturally, growing fruits and vegetables is one way parents can teach their children better self-sufficiency and how to be more in touch with food in general.

How to Teach Young Kids to Garden

Fortunately, it doesn't take much effort to give young kids their own plot of land. It needn't be large. In fact, it shouldn't be large, or gardening may quickly become overwhelming. When my oldest was four years old, I gave her two or three square feet of soil - plenty for a young beginner. When my youngest started gardening, I just gave him two large pots. (But if you have two or more kids old enough to start gardening, do yourself a big favor and give them each equally-sized gardening areas. Don't make them share.)

I recommend giving children a selection of plants to choose from; the first year, I highly recommend limiting your child's choices to things that are easy to grow, thereby feeding her enthusiasm for gardening. Peas, lettuce, carrots, green beans, chives, and radishes are all great choices for a child's first garden because they grow easily - and quickly. You might also consider some easy to grow flowers like nasturtiums (which are edible) and sunflowers. Since its important for young children to see quick results, plant both some small plants purchased from a local nursery and some seeds.

Even when you start them very young, there are lots of things kids can do on their own, including:

* Drawing up a garden plan.

* Helping add amendments to the soil.

* Putting soil in pots.

* Digging holes for plants.

* Counting out and planting seeds (even if they are clumsy about it).

* Adding mulch to the garden.

* Creating plant markers (with painted popsicle sticks or rocks).

* Weeding.

* Watering.

Depending upon the age of your child, you may have to supervise work time in their garden, but do your best not to take over. This garden is your child's, and he should be free to make a few mistakes. But do take advantage of those mistakes and turn them into science lessons. (For example, if your son over-waters the peas, give him an explanation of why too much water is bad for plants. Better yet, set up three plants for an experiment: One to water properly, one to over-water, and one to not water at all.)

For long-handles tools (like spades and hoes), you may need to purchase child-sized tools, but honestly, kids prefer to weed by hand. Otherwise, your kids ought to be able to use easy-to find adult tools like hand spades. I don't recommend purchasing gardening tools in the toy aisle, since they tend to be pretty useless in the garden.

Encourage your child to pick the food he grows whenever he likes, eating  them fresh from his garden. If your child likes to cook, also think about purchasing a book like the Simply In Season Cookbook, which teaches kids a bit about seasonal food and has simple and yummy recipes they can prepare. Finally, try reading with your kids about gardening.These titles were big hits in our home, fueling my young kids' enthusiasm and making them shout, "Let's go tend our garden, Mommy!"

How Groundhog's Garden Grew 
Up, Down, and Around
Garden Partners
Wiggling Worms at Work
Are You a Ladybug?

What About Older Kids?

I think it is easier to start kids in gardening when they are young and want to be like Mom or Dad, but certainly all is not lost if your kids are tweens or teens. If you're fortunate, your older child is eager to learn and all you have to do is give her a small piece of land (or some pots) and let her have at it with a small amount of guidance. But if your child is not eager to learn gardening, that's okay, too. Just make gardening part of her chores - one of the list of things she does to contribute to the household. 

With the under-eager gardener, a garden of his own is probably not the best choice. Instead, let your child work alongside you in the family garden. Let him complain, if he must, but trust me when I say he will pick up gardening skills along the way. I can't promise you'll turn your son into a person who loves gardening, but I can say that if you stick with it, your son will learn at least the basics of growing food. And that's really something in today's world.

A version of this post first appeared in March of 2010.


  1. Love this post, especially the last point about having your kids help out, even if they are less than enthusiastic about it. My 15 year old daughter loved helping in the garden as a younger child, but lost interest as a pre-teen. But suddenly, this year, she is extremely excited about growing flowers and is voluntarily helping with all garden chores. I am milking it for all it's worth! 😁

  2. Maridy, I'm glad your daughter is coming around! :)