In the modern world of gaming and television on demand, getting children to leave the confines of the house and venture into the ‘wild’ outdoors can be challenging. But with a little inspiration, once you get them into the garden, they will find a lot to have fun learning and enjoy discovering.
The garden and surrounding parks or countryside are full of life. Insects, spiders, earthworms, and other invertebrates abound in the soil. Take a close look under the leaflitter and children are bound to find creatures scurrying around.
Some kids will be happy getting their hands dirty and working in the soil and investigating bugs, others will be more reluctant to get messy and might be wary of creepy crawlies. Take account of these different behaviours when choosing activities and think about providing gloves and other equipment to any children that are a little squeamish.
Challenge the children to use their mobile phones to photograph as many different creatures in the garden/park as possible. Many phones have a macro feature for taking close-ups of small things. The children are likely to know how to use this and can probably teach you. A reward such as a lolly for each different creature can be the incentive for a thorough search.
Part two of the bug hunt may be to identify the creatures and learn a little about them. There are many downloadable or printable bug identification sheets that may help, or they may be able to use their favourite search engine and/or bug identification app. You will find many on the Kiwicare Problem Solver.
This is a great way to get kids interested in the garden and learning about how plants grow. Seeds of all sorts can be planted indoors in pots and seed trays and with a few days the kids will see the first shoots. Once the seedlings have grown large enough they can be planted out in the garden.
Vegetables are great seeds for children to plant because they can be sown, tended, harvested and finally cooked and eaten for a complete experience. Onions, swedes, carrots, parsnips, beans, potatoes, cabbages, rocket, garlic, pumpkin and courgettes are good crops for children and beginners. Herbs are also, generally easy to grow. All these can be grown from seed and you can start growing the seeds indoors or in a glasshouse so they are ready to plant out as seedlings once the risk of frost has passed. Check out the seeds from our friends at McGregor's.
Get your kids involved in gardening by letting them plant their own vegetables, herbs, fruit and/or flowers. This can be planting seedlings from the garden centre or sowing seeds in seed trays or flowerbeds. Choose plants and seeds that are simple to grow and rarely fail. The faster they grow the better; to younger children a week is a very long time.
It would be good to have set days and times for checking and watering the plants. Watering can be a winner. Punch little holes in the lids of mineral water, or other bottles, to produce a light sprinkle of water. They can fill them up and wander around the garden soaking themselves and/or the plants.
When allocating tasks and setting the time-frame for a gardening session, keep in mind that children tend to have a short attention span. Make sure you are full of praise and encouragement and allow them to do their own thing; vegetables do not need to be in straight lines!
You might consider giving the children their own space in the garden. A metre square will be enough to give them plenty of room for a variety of plants without making the work too daunting. If you do not have that much spare space, consider giving them pots to plant up. Spinach, carrots, lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, and green beans are good options. Giving the children their own light tools for working their patch will also encourage their enthusiasm.
With more than one child you can add a competitive element by challenging them to grow the biggest or tallest plant. With edibles the fun can be extended at harvest time by involving the children in preparing, cooking, and, of course, eating the results of their efforts. Growing their own can be a great way to encourage reluctant children to eat fruit and vegetables.
Children are likely to find the idea of plants growing upside-down appealing. A good option is growing upside-down hanging-basket tomato plants. Cut the bottom off a 1.5 L plastic drinks bottle and punch four holes around the cut edge. Gently feed a tomato seedling into the cut end of the bottle, and carefully pull the leaves through the neck, so the leaves are outside, leaving the roots in the neck of the bottle. Fill the bottle with compost to hold the roots in place and thread twine through the holes. Then hang it somewhere in the sun, water it regularly and wait for the tomatoes to grow.
A popular pastime for younger kids (and older) is to create some artwork using paints and leaves found in the garden. They can apply paint to the undersides of leaves where the leaf veins are prominent, and then press the painted leaf onto a piece of paper leaving the imprint of the vein structure. It will be surprising how many different leaf forms they will find, long narrow grass blades, lobed chestnut tree leaves, feathery leaves of yarrow, etc.
These are just a few suggestions of the sort of things that can get children interested in what is going on in the garden, get them out of the house and away from games and TV for a little while. You might find you have budding biologists or horticulturalists.