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Quality Time Happens Naturally in the Garden

LizardI’m always looking for creative ways to spend time with my son, Patrick. At nearly ten years old, we’ve spent countless hours in all the expected places — the children’s museum, the zoo, every cave and park within an hour’s drive.

Just when it seems we’ve exhausted every idea, we step out the front door and go on a nature walk. On a warm spring evening it can be a toad hunt. Or on a sunny afternoon, we head to the backyard and see how many types of bugs we can find in our garden. If you live in the city, you can visit a community garden or school garden or local park.


One thing we love to do is just sit and listen. What are the sounds of nature? Do you hear tiny birds tweeting? Then spy a mommy bird swooping in for a juicy bug to share with her chicks. Can you hear any bees buzzing around doing their jobs?


What plants grow where? Why? How did they get there? Can you guess where the seeds are on the plants you’re looking at? If not, make a note to look it up next time you’re near a computer or library. Can you spy anything that might be a seed? Go on a scavenger hunt for a dandelion. Talk about how each little helicopter that blows off the stem is a seed just looking for a place to sprout. Turn the plants you see into characters in a story. Write the first chapter together, taking turns line by line. Each take a sketchbook and draw your picture of nature. Compare notes.

Ask Questions.

It’s okay if you don’t know all the answers. Or, make up answers and fact check yourself later! Gardens are an amazing way to improve vocabulary -- for the young and young at heart. Think about what lessons your child might be learning at school and explore ways they apply in nature. We have a square foot garden, which was perfect for 3rd grade lessons on perimeter, volume and area. What I love most is that nature is an endless source of conversation. I often learn more from my son than he learns from me about whatever topic arises.

PumpkinRead About a Garden.

On a rainy day, ask the question “If you could grow anything in the world, what would it be?” Research where and how this special plant grows. Where would you have to live to have it in your garden? What tools might you need? Here’s a list of books to get you started.

Grow Something Together.

Everyone has the power to grow together. Learn from the simplicity of spouting a seed: grab a bean from the pantry and place it on a moist paper towel. Put the bean and paper towel in a plastic baggie, then place it in a warm spot. Check on it every day and watch it sprout! Then plant it in a pot on the patio or windowsill.

Last year, my son and I decided to see how long our Halloween pumpkin would last. In March it started to get a little mushy, so we set it out in the backyard. As it decomposed, it brought an amazing array of creatures, from slugs to roly-polies! Just two weeks ago we discovered that some of the seeds inside have sprouted – the dried seed hung on the tip of the new green leaves. Now we’re going to see if we actually have a pumpkin patch!

Besides being an ever-changing source of growth and learning, the beautiful thing about gardening is there’s no right or wrong, no success or failure. There are only lessons to guide what you’ll do next!

Do you spend time with your child in gardens or in nature? What lessons have you learned together? Tell us in the comments below.

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peggy curry says …

Nona, I LOVED all your wonderful suggestions for getting outside with your kids, and couldn't agree more about watching a garden grow even if it's a happenstance garden experiment! I was wondering what the photo was, now I do, a decomposed pumpkin! I know you will be watching a pumpkin grow soon! What fun for your son and you! Next you will be making pumpkin bread or a squash soup together! Another fun day, cooking in your kitchen! Peggy

helen brown says …

As a Master Gardener I loved your ideas on how to introduce gardening to a child. My grandchildren live to far away for me to use any of these ideas, so I hope they are read and acted on by parents.

Muriel Reiffe says …

I wish i had a youngster with whom to share this one. My grandchild is 25. However, I will send it to appropriate folks. It is excellent.

John Fisher says …

Hi Nona, As a parent volunteer in my son's school garden, a family gardener, and co-author of The Book of Gardening Projects for Kids I can't agree with more. Your post talks to the simplicity of enjoying the garden with kids. Just get out there and listen, look and question! There is so much going on in a garden - a microcosm of the world! The teachable moments will present themselves exponentially as you spend more time in the garden. In preparing for writing our book we conducted interviews with family gardeners across the nation. One element that was universal to all gardeners with young children was a digging only bed. A place just for kids to dig, play with trucks, fairies, or whatever floats their boat. My son outgrew his digging bed and then decided to plant in it. So much pride and interest comes from the growing space that is "his". Thank you Whole Foods for supporting gardening with kids and providing school garden grants! Keep bringing learning to life in the garden! John Fisher Parent/Garden Educator www.lifelab.org

Don vans says …

Gardening is a great way to witness how nature reacts to human intervention--good or bad. Seeing the results of proper care or neglect can be so awakening.