I approach gardening with kids much like I approach anything with kids; with great joy, patience and as much non-attachment to the outcome as I can muster, this way when it’s fun it fun and when it’s done it’s done.
Because I am a what you might call a serious gardener, meaning I spend a larger than average time in my garden as well as garden for a living, I have had to figure out ways to not only share my great love of the earth with my son (and many other children along the way) but figure out the balance of engaging him AND getting stuff done. This has been of course been achieved with varying degrees of success over the seasons but with his help and the help of many years as a schoolyard garden teacher I have learned a trick or two that may be helpful to you.
Not only is fresh air and sun shine good for you and your child post-partum, but getting babies used to where you plan to spend a lot of time with them is helpful. As they arrive on this earth, providing them with safe comfortable ways to be here is crucial if they are to feel like they belong on this good green earth.
When my son was very young I put him in a little basket in the green house. It was warm and the light was filtered so I felt he was safe from the elements and I could be nearby, sometimes not gardening at all, but given back my hands for a moment while he gazed up at the green. It is still our chosen play spot during the colder months of the year.
When he got a little older he spent lots of time on his back right in the garden patch…
luckily there are very few itchy things to worry about here in New Mexcio whichs brings great ease to a gardening mothers heart.
But I always made sure he was well protected when the sun was bright. He always slept really well outside.
Provide Safe Spaces:
As a new mother on a somewhat unruly homestead I was often nervous about where to let him roam and what was really ok to let a baby wander into. Those first couple of years my husband did a lot of baby proofing in my behalf. Adding brick paths
Adding little edges, walls and fences to help him define boundaries of plants and people space, and of course give him something to pull himself up on and lots of safe grazing foods within reach.
Let them explore:
So much of the world is fascinating and marvelous when you are brand new and whenever I let go enough of say a wet baby on a chilly cold day, I am able to witness some of the worlds greatest delights!! And of course had a towel and warm bath waiting.
Let them feel:
Wet and dirty, flowing water, gritty sand. Children’s whole beings are big sensory organs and their job is to take in the world and process it. The garden is the greatest place to experience the feel the texture of life and open our senses to all the miracles of sensory awareness the world holds and it truly is all right there in our own backyards.
Sometimes that means letting them pluck a flower or two or eating some dirt, but the casualties are most likely worth it!
Keep them with you:
I think one of our greatest successes is that when I work in the garden, my son comes with me or at least up till now at 3 years old. Sure I sneak moments to myself and save certain jobs for when he is with someone else, but mostly I just tell him it is time for working in the garden and he joins right in.
When he was small of course a pile of gravel was enough keep him happy , or a bowl of water or a pile of dirt….but as he grew he would wander off and get into places I was not so fond of….I started to find toddler size boot prints all throughout freshly sprouted seed beds so yes, I baby proofed the garden a bit. It ran string about 2 feet high around the beds as boundaries and they did in fact stop him from trampling, though a few other visiting toddlers weren’t slowed in the slightest and just startled right over….I also put recycled tiles in the garden paths as stepping-stones and it seemed to be more entertaining to jump from one to another than tramp the plants, so we were both happy with that!
Give them spaces of their own
When kids get even older, say 2, it is important to set them up with projects you can let them work on without having to keep too close an eye. They want to help and have meaningful work, but if you can work right there with them they need to have something important to do that does contribute to the job at hand. If I am sowing flats of example, my son stirs the soil and fills the trays. Often he has his own agenda when we enter a space like the greenhouse and wants to water all the plant accessible to him with his own watering can.
Give them meaningful work and real tools:
My husband is a champion of involving our son in projects. He somehow has two of every thing and can set him up to work right by his side. He also seems to have varying sizes of things so that our son had a real hammer, but one that fit in his hands and wasn’t a danger, not only so he doesn’t get so frustrated by working with something that simply doesn’t fit him, but so he can actually succeed at hitting a nail. Now that he is bigger he is really helpful in delivering things. He can pass tools and go grab things and loves to help in that way. They also build real things and I am so grateful we both have real skills to pass on. I have never seen my son use a toy tool bench, but I wonder if he would just pass it by, once you have had the real thing it is hard to play with plastic imitations.
Be ready, Be reasonable about expectations & Be prepared for breakdowns:
Setting you both up well is really important. Having the hats and the gloves and the water and the shovels can seem like a lot to think about when you are just going to kneel down for some weeding….but I find my son always wants the same things and if I have them on hand and don’t have completely interrupt my flow to get things for him, we are both happier and can stay focused for much longer.
Just as giving a tiny child a huge hammer and expecting him to wield it well is silly, the same applies to planning a whole day in a sunny garden with 2-year-old, it is simply a bad idea. Scaling my time has been important to learn so that our time and energy together is fun and not over extended. Weather it is the right size tool or timeline, tuning into a child’s size and capacity can make or break any experience.
Though no matter how hard you try to prepare, measure and accommodate, when a child is done, he is done! Yielding to a child’s needs is another good lesson I have learned in my power garden sessions. Sometimes they are just done before you are and want different things at different times. Now that my son is three he can say, “I am hungry” or “I am all done” and I can say “Ok, I will finish up here and we will go get a snack.” It is all very civilized, however this time last year he simply could not communicate so well and our gardening together would often end in me stepping too far away for a moment and him wailing in worry, or some other seemingly insignificant thing that would abruptly end our blissful garden sessions. But I took it all in stride. One of the hardest things to learn as a mother in these first couple of years is that my child and I have very different needs, though any stranger could tell that just by looking at us, I really had a hard time accommodating both what he wanted and I wanted at the same time. But as I yielded, so did he and we always managed to work together and get those seeds in the ground or the crops in from the field as well and snuggle, nurse and rest together. And just remember, just because it may end in tears one day, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again, maybe with a few lessons learned, but there is always another chance to grow together!
Do things together:Which often mean slowing down and letting go.
All this said I must admit the biggest lesson I have learned is that being a serious gardener and a good garden mentor don’t always align. I often feel I must get certain things done in a certain amount of time and little ones simply don’t get that. Yes, I do power garden on my own, but remembering that my helpers, both young and old are still learning to connect, love and savor the earth is a great lesson for me, when did I get so busy anyway? Most of what I learn is that being in the moment really does make it last longer and gives us more. Being in the garden with my son does involve some boundaries and guidance, but mostly it is truly a time for reverence and connection. We are sharing in each other and in the world together and sincerely, nothing could be finer and truly neither of us want anything more.
And now look at him!! My little garden guy. Marveling at the wonders all around him, sharing the miracles of life with those close to him and working, always working!! Love that little garden guy!
PS After I wrote this I came across and similar and beautiful post about gardening with kids here where I borrowed this quote from:
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”