Kids can learn and have fun when helping in the garden

May 03, 2012|By AMY DULEBOHN |
  • Sadie Levering, left, Roula Hammer and Helena Bridwell check the progress of plants they are growing at Morgan Academy.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Tina Webster jokingly said the only reason her parents had children was so they would have someone to pull weeds out of their garden.

So when the Fairplay woman started gardening, she wanted to make the experience fun and interesting for her daughter.

Webster cultivated her gardening to become a Master Gardener in 2008, and works with the gardening club at Morgan Academy, the school where Hannah, now 7, attends.

The club meets Thursday afternoons at the Shepherdstown, W.Va., school. Webster said the group is all-encompassing when it comes to gardening, going from planting seeds to growing vegetables. This year, she said, they are building teepees and planting sunflowers and morning glories.

"We try to link everything back to nutrition," Webster said. "If the kids grow it, they will eat it."

Last spring, she said, the students planted and ate the green, leafy vegetable arugula. "There aren't many kids who want to eat arugula," she said.

Webster said she has worked with preschoolers, but finds that school-age children are best to work with when it comes to gardening, but cautions that no matter the age of the kids, don't expect perfection.

"Kids do not plant like adults so plan for that. Do not give an 8-year-old a handful of seeds expecting them to end up in a neat row; they will likely end up in one big clump. Instead, give them one or two seeds at a time," Webster suggested.

Webster said to also keep age in mind when delving out the duties.

"Try to make sure that the activities you are doing in the garden suit the age of the child involved. I let the older kids do the more complex tasks and give the simpler things to the younger kids," she said.

An easy task for younger children, according to Webster, is to let them water plants. Using a child-size watering can, the kids can water to their hearts' content. "All kids love to water," she said. "They can't really do it wrong."

Container gardening is also a type of gardening that works well for children. Containers can be placed on higher levels for comfort, and "the kids can't step on (the plants)," she said.

"You'd be amazed at how much you can grow in containers," she said.

At Morgan Academy, the students even grow potatoes in containers. When it's time to harvest the vegetable, the containers are turned upside down on a large tarp and instead of digging potatoes, the kids find them.

"It's like an Easter egg hunt," she said.

At her home, Webster is growing peas, lettuce and broccoli in containers on her deck.

And when it comes to pulling weeds, Webster has a solution for that, too, at least for older children. She said one way to make weeding fun is to provide pictures of a weed and then have a weed treasure hunt. "It's beyond exciting for the older kids," she said.

Jamie Kenton, an extension educator in 4-H Youth Development with the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County, also gardens with her daughter. Kenton said daughter Kat, 6, loves to dig in the front yard garden Kenton calls her "prairie."

"She's not necessarily helping," but it still cultivates her interest, Kenton said.

Kat has been interested in gardening since she was 2 or 3, Kenton said. Kat likes to help her mother pick out plants and decide where to put them in the garden.

Another garden activity of particular interest to Kat is talking about worms or bugs she and her mother find in the garden. Kenton has a science background, so she said she can usually explain to Kat what types of insects they find, but if not, they often look online or in a book later to determine what the "visitor" is.

"It's a good time to introduce (kids) to bugs," Kenton said. She said many children seem to be frightened by bugs, but she tries to teach Kat not to be afraid.

"I tell her we are bigger than they are, so we need to treat them with respect. If they are bothering us, we can move away from them, or we can move them away from us. We don't need to squash them," she said.

Tips for gardening with kids

  •  Plant simple and fast producing plants (lettuce, cherry tomatoes, radishes, beans). They are easy to plant and provide quick results for impatient gardeners.
  •  Make the garden accessible. Have paths through the garden for little feet to walk on. Making the garden in a raised bed or a variety of containers makes it easier to "garden" and easy to spread helpers out.
  •  Have simple and specific jobs for all of the kids to do (watering, harvesting, planting). Jobs can be shared, but the idea is to have adequate time for everyone to have a chance to participate.
  •  Create a garden theme of interest to kids (pizza garden, literature-related gardens, salsa garden, etc.). Kids get excited when they know that what they are planting will go to make something specific for them to eat.
  •  Be aware of potential allergies or other problems with specific plants. Contact the Home and Garden Information Center at or 800-342-2507, for more information.
  •  Have child-sized equipment for the kids to use. Tools made for small hands are easier and safer for children.
  •  Be flexible with your time in the garden. If the children see a bug or a worm, take the time to talk about it. If you can connect it to a book or song, that makes the experience even more memorable and enjoyable.
  •  Let the kids explore and observe while in the garden. 
  •  Ask open-ended and predicting questions while working in the garden (i.e. What do you think will happen if we didn't water the plants?)
  •  Don't be afraid to get dirty. Wear appropriate clothes to get dirty in and be prepared to spend some time cleaning up at the end of the gardening session.
  •  Let them plan. If starting a garden from scratch, allow children to participate in the planning process based on their skills and abilities. 
  •  Keep them busy. The more involved kids are in the actual gardening, the more fun it will be and the less accidents are likely to happen.
  •  Have fun. Try to relax and enjoy the moment with the kids. While there needs to be structure, don't let it blind you to family fun.

— Courtesy of Jamie Kenton, extension educator in 4-H Youth Development with the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County

County gardening activities for the kids

  •  Garden Activity at German Four-Square Garden with Master Gardeners, allows participants to learn about sunflowers and their history, children's craft of planting activity for Mother's Daygift giving; 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 12, Washington County Rural Heritage Museum, 7313 Sharpsburg Pike, south of Hagerstown. For more information,go to
  •  4-H has a Junior Master Gardener curriculum, Down-To-Earth gardening curriculum and Acres of Adventures. For more information, contact Jamie Kenton at 301-791-1404 or
  •  The Master Gardener program through the University of Maryland Extension has gardening projects throughout Washington County, including some geared toward children. For more information, contact Karen Sechler at 301-791-1604 or at

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