Teaching Gardening to Children
By Cynthia Coe
This school year, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching gardening to children at the Episcopal School of Knoxville. And it has truly been a pleasure. Children have said that gardening is their favorite class, one child said it was more fun than recess, and two young ladies told me they want to be garden teachers when they grow up.
Yet figuring exactly how to teach gardening to children has been a bit of a challenge. Though an overwhelming number of books and resources are available on gardening in general, a scant few of them address the process of teaching gardening to children. Even books that claim to teach children will simply tell you the basics of constructed raised beds, getting a garden started, or how to grow various veggies – NOT how to present these skills and concepts specifically to children.
As many Episcopal parishes and schools get ready to involve children in garden projects, community gardens, or VBS or Lenten programs centered on the Abundant Life Garden Project (www.er-d.org/children), here’s a few things I’ve learned over the last few months in teaching gardening to children in group settings:
- Teach the basics: In teaching children from mostly suburban neighborhoods, I’ve found the need for simple demonstrations on things like: how to put on garden gloves, the names of basic garden tools and how to use them, safety rules in using garden tools, and how to weed.
- Children need a defined space in which to work. Turning a group of children loose on a vegetable garden can lead to absolute chaos. We’ve used the square foot gardening concepts and techniques to create small definite spaces in which each child has an opportunity to plant a seed or bulb in a specific place. Assigning two or three children to each raised bed has also been successful.
- Children love hands-on garden work. Two of my most popular lessons have been “weeding” and “how to use a trowel/hoe/shovel.” In a world of children who are often overscheduled and who are getting huge amounts of “input” in their lives, children seem to need some “down time” to simply pull weeds or work in the dirt. I’ve noticed that children also love to do manual work – a huge contrast to sitting at desks all day, and seemingly a welcome contrast to brain work or more organized activities.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Seeds get dropped. Newly planted seeds get hoed over and spread someplace you didn’t intend. In working with children, you can’t worry about your garden being “perfect” (not that anything is perfect, anyway!).
Resources – after a LOT of time online and in the bookstore, here are my go-to books for teaching gardening in easy-to-understand terms to children:
- Mel Bartholomew, All New Square Foot Gardening. This is a brilliant way to teach children (and others) how to garden easily and efficiently. This method also provides children with a defined space in which to work and easy to follow directions. Website is www.squarefootgardening.org
- Reggie Solomon and Michael Nolan, I Garden: Urban Style. These guys explain gardening in terms all new gardeners can understand. This book is geared to people who live in urban areas with very little space in which to garden and who want to hit the easy button. The photos in this book are inspiring. Website is www.urbangardencasual.com .
Two British books worth looking at (both available online) which deal specifically with gardening for children are:
- Stefan & Beverley Buczacki, Young Gardener (London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2006). This book features large print and language suitable for children themselves. If you want something for children to read themselves, this would be the book.
- Karen Liebriech, Jutta Wagner, and Annette Wendland, The Family Kitchen Garden (London: Timber Press, 2009). This book is much more detailed and includes information pages on growing many individual vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
Note: These books are geared for the British market; you may need to tweak use of them for your hardiness zone.
Happy Planting! Cindy