My experience is that kids take to gardens in different ways depending on their ages, temperaments and, yes, even gender. Of course, children develop at different rates; this is no abbreviated horticultural version of the popular child-raising series "What to Expect... When You're Expecting... The First Year," etc. But a trowelful of guidance goes a long way to matching the child with the gardening activity.
Preschoolers, Ages 3-4:
As long as I don't expect us to accomplish something in the adult sense of the phrase, gardening is great fun. We move mulch. We catch toads. We pull a few weeds. We blow the fuzz off dandelions. If a child wants to plant last night's dessert--watermelon seeds, we do just that. This age of unbridled exploration must be accompanied exploration. Preschoolers are never safe unattended. And while you're together, you have a chance to explain the life cycle of a seed or the history of evolution in an ancient fern. Let kids take the lead while you supply the background information. It's in the storytelling that kids learn about gardening and the world. Don't know all the answers? No one does. Library trips are part of the journey.
Kindergartners, Age 5:
"All the world's a stage" for youngsters who have an emerging sense of how to play with others. Gardens, great places to act out dramas, will serve children for a half dozen years or more. Create forts, tree houses, secret hide-a-ways, and kids' own gardens where children can interact and learn. Continue to let kids take the lead. If your child sees a hollow stump as a potential troll house, drop your pruning shears and join him in inspecting it. Help him gather the supplies he needs to make the project happen. Assist only where needed--say in lashing sticks together to make a ladder, or by offering leftover nasturtium seeds or marigold seedlings to embellish his ideas. At last, kids this age have the attention span and dexterity to be left within sight to create their own worlds. And don't fuss about how those little Edens turn out. The world was a messy place during its creation.
Elementary Schoolers, Ages 6-7:
Your youngster's improving reading and math skills add new depth to gardening fun. Now kids can make plant markers, read seed packets, pore over catalogs, and pay for nursery plants. And yet they're still wide-eyed and open to nature's mysteries. Soil, holes, and water hold endless fascination, as do bugs. But for children this age, the "doing" is still more important than the end result. For them, a garden is a willy nilly collection of plants of all shapes, sizes, and colors. A bouquet is whatever fits in the diameter of a palm and curled fingers and whose stems reach into a jar full of water.
Middle Schoolers, Ages 8-9:
The emphasis shifts from doing to doing well. Your children can design a garden on graph paper, thinking about flower heights and colors or how much space a tomato plant will need. They can translate that drawing to a real garden. Their ability to use tools increases; they can build arbors and fences. It's never too early, but now is an especially wonderful time to enter your vegetables and bouquets in contests at the local fair or town events or to join a group such as a community garden, CSA, or 4-H. These activities combine gardening with friendships--both so important now.
Middle Schoolers, Ages 10-11:
Now gardening celebrates its ability to cross several disciplines with ease to speak to your children's many interests. Garden is science, math, art, and still fun. Your youngsters can organize a class project to create a small garden at the local nursing home--and gain the support of businesses and parent volunteers. They can build garden structures and community. They can start seeds and businesses. We know a couple of boys whose award-winning sunflowers at the fair launched their own sunflower seed business. And the opportunities for fun in the garden are endless. With a little imagination, this year's scarecrows can look like the Spice Girls, or Arthur, or the scariest dementor Harry Potter ever met.
They may not be teenagers yet, but you'd never know it. At this age, if youngsters don't take a hiatus from gardening in favor of friends and anything currently "way cool," they can put their green thumbs to work in the family landscape and in community projects. While focusing on sports, fashion, or school plays fills their days to overflowing, how can gardening compete? In a word, it has to be "awesome." And it is.
Many students now do independent studies, such as "eighth-grade challenges," to demonstrate their mastery of a subject. These are the years when some gardening project guided by a biology teacher, group leader, neighbor, or parent just may set some youngsters on career paths. It's enough to hope your child will grow up to garden, but who knows, you may have a budding botanist or future horticulturist in the family.