Who Will Be Tomorrow’s Gardeners?
My favorite part of summer is spending outdoor time with my grandkids. Over the years, I’ve often been asked how to engage children in gardening, often with comments about how quickly kids get bored. Well, yes. Few kids-or adults-truly LOVE weeding and watering. My grandkids like watering but only if it means spraying with the hose and making rainbows, not bending over to deliver water right to the roots of thirsty plants. People of any age don’t fall in love with gardening unless they experience its enchanting side. How does that happen? Growing from seed works for some kids, especially with big results like sunflowers or zucchini. My grandkids love to make new plants from cuttings, starting with Schlumberga, aka the ‘holiday cactus’ family, or jade plants and spider plants, all eager rooters that plump up into plants very quickly. As they nurture their own seedlings and starts, the kids develop a deeper respect for plant life. They begin to understand that plants can live or die and that creates a sense of responsibility that moves them to (usually) treat plants more like kittens or puppies than like inanimate objects.
For others, magic awakens while examining flowers, bees, and other insects with a magnifying glass (carefully, so not to burn plants or tiny critters). Really SEEING how beautiful and intricate the simplest blossom is can spark a lifelong fascination with plants, at least it did for me. As a child, I happily burrowed into bushes and watched nearby poppies bursting out of their bud sheaths in slo-mo while my brothers played a rowdy game of hide and seek. After reading The Borrowers, I started making what are now known as fairy houses, using flowers and petals and leaves of all kinds, as well as shells and feathers, moss and bark. Pre-pandemic, I facilitated fairy house workshops at the local library, and often parents commented curiously on their child’s level of interest, usually saying that these kids were not particularly interested in gardening at home. What made them so engaged?
Engagement & Agency
Perhaps the most important factor was that a good Fairy House program excludes parents except as passive onlookers, and facilitators actively discourage adult interference. There is supervision and oversight, of course, but the children’s own creativity is allowed full rein and they are also allowed the luxury of constructive failure. They are offered a wide range of natural materials to experiment with and given encouragement as needed, but they get to experience a little frustration as well as the soaring triumph of success when their own ideas become workable. It often works well to get kids to work in pairs, as it’s fun to exchange ideas and get enthusiastic responses. Rather than offering suggestions, adults can be most helpful by waiting to be asked. It’s fine to help gather and carry raw materials to the chosen building site, but try to stand back and allow the youngsters space to develop their own creativity. Find a pleasant log or rock to sit on and listen to the birds or watch the clouds or just immerse yourself in being outside. When kids see us glued to our phones or other devices, they get the message that outside is too boring to merit our full attention(!).
Some of my favorite experiences involved wonderful children’s workshops for making nature based art, inspired by the early work of Andy Goldsworthy. We’ve woven blankets of long grasses, and made colorful mandalas with leaves and flower petals. We edged public paths with colorful autumn leaves, then watched as the wild wind swept them all into brilliant airborne art. We sewed leaves into long garlands with beading cord and draped them over shrubs. We tucked allium and poppy seedheads into tree branches like holiday ornaments and made marvelous mosaics with leaves and seedpods. We made wreaths with lichen covered twigs and rosehips. Always, the children developed their own ideas, found their own favorite materials, created amazing patterns, and always they loved the activities. What’s not to love?
Less Becomes More
In general, I find gentle guidance to be far more effective than micro-managing. Having grown up in the 50s, when parenting was horrifyingly hands-off by today’s standards, I tend to let kids experiment rather than steer too much. In our middle class neighborhood, kids were encouraged to play outside all day, as long as we showed up for meals and went to bed on time. My brothers and I experienced this as mostly benign neglect, taking full advantage of our freedom to ride bikes to the library daily (me), play in the nearby woods, climb trees, build forts, and mess about with boats on the local river. Back then, nobody seemed worried about possible dangers and I don’t recall anything awful happening to any of us until the 60s crashed over us, bringing Viet Nam, a smorgasbord of drugs, and some complicated freedoms in their wake.
To this day, I delight in gently guiding children in hands-on outdoor activities. It’s heartening to watch children find such joy in playing with garden gleanings that would otherwise end up in our compost, or planting a magical mouse-sized forest of vivid annuals. Even without (or especially without) adult suggestions, the range and scope of their imaginative makings is impressive and often unexpected. Most avid gardeners have a story about a parent, grandparent, or neighbor who made them welcome in the garden as a child or as a tween or teen. If we’re lucky, the young people we invite into our gardens will become tomorrow’s gardeners, alive to the living world. It’s hugely important, because when we encourage children to play creatively in the garden, we offer a living link to the natural world that can last a lifetime. Onward, right?