It takes everything in me to wait until nap time to pull a few weeds or pick the tomatoes… But, monkey see, monkey do… only my little monkey isn’t quite so discriminating about his choices. He zeroes in on a weed (aka lettuce plant) and yanks then shreds. All tomatoes are balls and all zucchini are pickles. None survive but nonetheless, I’m determined to grow food. Not even the quick hands or stomping feet of a toddler can keep me down! I’ve revamped my yard, taking a little time to get myself ready for my toddler’s curiosity and energy to be helpful to his growth and my garden’s rather than utter destruction. Here are some ideas that have really helped me.
Build a Toddler Garden
You can give your kiddo a section of the garden to plant, tend and harvest. This may mean that rows are squiggle lines and plants die from having the leaves ripped off, but at least your child is interacting with plants and showing an interest in the garden without destroying your plot of organic salad greens and heirloom tomatoes.
Mini-Sized Garden Tools
If you haven’t already gotten a toddler sized rake, shovel, watering can and bucket DO IT NOW. I cannot stress enough how much of a game changer this is. Filling the bucket with compost, mulch or leaves (from the trees that have fallen hopefully) will take 10 minutes and dumping it in teaspoon sized piles on the plants another ten. The watering can will carefully trickle water over the plants rather than the hose on full blast uprooting even the hardiest bushes. And honestly, I use the little rake myself to get in between my plants to fish out stray mulch or leaves – it’s the perfect size.
Teach your child how to care for the plants
Being able to grow your own food is an important life skill and showing your children while they’re young and interested contributes to lifelong habits. My little guy can plant bean seeds and cover them, water and pick them. He also knows a handful of edible plants that he can eat without asking – mostly herbs and perennial tropical vegetables. If you show your child the plant parts and explain why the plant is in the ground, why we water it and you watch it grow together, that’s magic. Your kid will remember that experience and tell every stranger in the grocery store.
I admit, the first time my toddler took every tomatillo off every plant, I was really discouraged. I didn’t plant anything else that season and I actually ended up pulling out my plants. The edibles that have survived toddlerhood in my yard have been the fruit trees and shrubs with edible leaves like herbs, cranberry hibiscus and katuk. The more sensitive annual vegetables require more attention from me and less from him. If you are in this boat, maybe consider planting different crops. Mango, avocado and mulberry trees take so much less work than a tomato plant and will provide fruit for years as well as cooling shade and they’ll sequester carbon.
Digging. Lots of digging
What’s better than a kid with a bucket and a small shovel? Add a pile of mulch, soil, or compost. That loose material will need to be loaded up and hauled to the garden or to a tree. Bonus points if the bucket fits in a dump truck. It’ll keep your child busy while developing those spatial awareness and focusing skills.
Fairy or Dinosaur Garden
Give your child a space to decorate with fun whimsical fairies or rough n tough dinosaurs. Don’t assume that your boy wants dinosaurs or girl wants fairies – my lil guy likes dinosaurs but he would love the little flowers and houses of a fairy garden too. Mix it up, the theme can change or have no theme at all. You could also use trolls, gnomes, dragons or cars, whatever character your child loves. I like to use a few little toy figurines that have been lost from their set. They might not last long, between getting buried in the pot or misplaced. Often, I see fake plants used in fairy gardens, but you could use herbs, edible flowers, and lettuces to expose your child to real gardening. Let him move the decorations and characters around and interact with the garden. This is my little guy’s morning project – dinosaurs, rocks, pinecones and a few flowers that may have gotten trampled. It kept him busy for a while and he got to enjoy pretend play time while outdoors.
Clear garden boundaries
As you design and organize your garden space, set clear visual boundaries up so your child knows where the off-limit spaces are. A short fence, plant markers, or border of mulch, pavers, plants or flowers will define your garden area, so saying “don’t go in the garden” will have meaning. Raised beds are already defined and clearly different to your child so you might consider installing one or more. It results in less soil disturbance than planting annuals in the ground, therefore less sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere and fewer soil microorganisms are displaced.
Besides for YOU getting a chance to actually work in the garden, being outdoors in the soil is so good for your toddler’s brain and body. Being outdoors increases spatial awareness, a concept that is under-developed in many children because of too many technology-centered days. This affects everything from hand-eye coordination to future athleticism. Allow your child to explore the garden space and build structures will help those spatial skills develop. Talk to your child about the structures using ordinal words such as under, between, above, below with descriptions will further that understanding.
Kids that are exposed to growing food are more likely to sample the fresh produce, and will be more interested in eating fruits and vegetables. They also have a greater food literacy, or understanding of where food comes from, what conditions help them to grow and its impact on our bodies, which leads to healthier food choices and a wider palate.