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Gardening with Children

Big surprises often come in small, special packages. “One year for Robbi’s birthday, my son Scott and I gave her a gift certificate for a class at The Morton Arboretum,” says landscape architect Bob Hursthouse of Hursthouse, Inc. It turned out to be a great adventure.“Scott was a preschooler and we went to the “Salamanders are Cool” program,” Robbi says. “It was a March night and we went looking for salamanders on the pond’s edge. His feet definitely got a little wet, but he was so into it.”Robbi has two fun titles. She’s the Garden Play Specialist in the horticultural therapy program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. And, she’s Vice President of Culture at Hursthouse.“I always marvel at her insights about how to get children more involved in nature,” Bob says. “From my perspective, not only as a dad—I’ll be rock climbing with my son this spring—but as a landscape architect, an appreciation of the natural world is so important to a child’s physical, mental and emotional development.”

Out and About

According to Robbi, “I think it’s important for all children to explore a world other than the electronic world…the world of nature.”

Her childhood home in Massachusetts sat on a wooded lot that backed up to a forest with equestrian trails. “I’d play outside every day, even in winter. I remember having acorn caps and pieces of moss. I’d make little people out of them to play with.” That outdoor experience—exploring the natural world—was something we both wanted to share with Scott.

“Whether you live in a city or suburb, there are many wonderful, local natural areas to explore with your children,” Robbi says. County forest preserves offer trails and nature centers. The Morton Arboretum and the Chicago Botanic Garden both have spectacular children’s gardens with special activities and interactive exhibits.

Brookfield Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo offer fascinating displays and educational events. “A visit to a zoo is a great way to spark a child’s curiosity,” Robbi says. “It’s a sensory experience—the smells, the sounds, the sights of animal behaviors, and the widely different habitats all engage a child’s awareness.” And, for older kids there’s the important idea of conservation to protect different species and habitats. There’s an educational opportunity packed into each visit.

And, not too far away are two of Bob and Robbi’s favorite places—Starved Rock State Parkin Oglesby, and Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesteron, Indiana. Visiting nature centers and hiking nearby trails need not be expensive. “On a nice spring day, pack a lunch, pack the kids, and hop in the car for a day of exploration,” Robbi says. Local park districts and forest preserves are another venue for outdoor nature activities for children and many events are often free.

“There’s also the Peggy Notebart Museum in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and it’s really cool,” Robbi says. The museum’s fascinating hands-on classes teach children about nature. Exhibits of live butterflies and exotic birds also help them understand the connections between these winged wonders and the greater outdoors. The museum offers events like Tea with a Turtle, where kids can get up close and personal with all of the resident turtles, and there are more than 50 animal species that live at the museum.

“Seeds are probably one of the most interesting things where children can see life emerge from a dry little shell,” Robbi says. A simple way to engage a child this time of year is starting seeds indoors. Nurturing a tiny seed, which has life in it, can help set the groundwork for how well children care for themselves and others in the future. A few pots, some “soil-less” potting mix and marigold seeds are all you need to get preschoolers excited.

Outdoors, you can get them started with fun projects, such as growing a “fast-food” salad garden in a small 4×4 foot raised bed set in a sunny spot. She recommends having them sow seeds of leaf lettuce, spinach, radishes, beets and peas in April. These seeds can also be sown in a large pot that has drainage holes and is filled with lightweight potting mix. “Corn, beans and pumpkins are always fun to grow in late spring,” Robbi says. “You can sow the seeds outdoors any time after May 15.”

One project for preschool children is a flower garden based on certain colors. It can be fun to focus on a color scheme. Ask children what their favorite color is and let them select plants around that color. If they like purple, there are purple beans, purple kale, purple zinnias and purple eggplant.

Let them select annuals such as marigolds, ageratum, zinnias, cosmos and other easy-to-grow flowers that they can plant. Help them write the names of the flowers and the colors on large wooden sticks—wooden paint stirrers are good for this purpose—placed next to each plant.

Tiny Hands Call for Tiny Tools

Small hands need small tools. When you’re gardening with preschoolers you need to buy gardening tools that are their size—gloves, a little rake, a shovel and wheelbarrow. Another bonus of gardening with young children is that it helps them learn the basic colors, as well as counting and nurturing.

Getting them involved in gardening can help picky eaters, too. “When they grow a few fun edibles, the more interested they become in eating them.” Pull out paper, draw a square of your back yard and let the child take part in figuring out what to plant. Have them use math to plot their vegetable garden, multiplying the length by the width of the space. A 6×6 foot flower garden is 36 square feet and a basic rule is to allow one square foot for every plant.

The key to an enjoyable first-time experience is allowing the child to have fun. “Don’t make it work, make it play—let them be in charge,” Robbi says. “Take them to the garden center where they can help pick out their own seeds and plants and they’ll be more invested in the process.”

The makings for a pizza patch include tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, oregano, basil and onions. And, for older children, there’s the salsa garden with tomatoes, cilantro, hot peppers and onions. Choose a sunny location that receives six or more hours of direct sun each day. If they will be gardening in containers, look for dwarf or compact varieties of vegetables.

Speed is of the essence for most children, especially those who are on social media sites, video games or texting and expect immediate responses. “Fast-growing crops such as corn, beans, cucumbers, squash, gourds and pumpkins will capture their attention,” Robbi says. Children will love growing miniature pumpkins on a small trellis. Look for seeds of We-B-Little or Jack-Be-Little pumpkins. They’ll turn orange by August and fit right into a child’s hand.

Children can learn to compare how much money they’ve saved their family by weighing and keeping track of cucumbers or tomatoes that they’ve grown. At the end of the season, they can multiply the number of pounds they’ve harvested by the average price at the local store. It’s all a learning experience.

They can track their edible garden’s progress in a notebook or on a computer, recording when seeds, flowers or vegetables were planted. “They can take photos or make drawings to illustrate their successes or their discoveries of weird bugs or beautiful butterflies. It’s all fun and educational.” Perhaps their experiences will end up as a school science project.

Another way to engage them is to plant a butterfly garden and discover which of the many winged wonders and their offspring will visit. Illinois is home to about 150 different types of butterflies.

There’s a renewed interest in helping monarch butterflies and one way to do that is plant some milkweed—monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed. There are several types of ornamental, well-behaved and colorful milkweed—not just the common aggressive milkweed that grows along roadsides.

You can learn more about monarchs at the National Wildlife Federation’s Milkweed for Monarchs web site. Milkweed flowers also provide nectar to a variety of different butterflies and insects. Other nectar plants include coneflowers, zinnias, monarda and butterfly bush. Plant seeds of parsley, dill and fennel for the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies to munch on.

“You can find all sorts of bug-friendly containers, nature kits and viewers for children, like ‘bugnoculars,’” Robbi says. Some have built-in magnifiers and snap-lock lids with air holes so that children can safely get an up-close view of the tiniest bugs, caterpillars, seeds, flowers, leaves, fossils, and even fish and tadpoles.

“Physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively—nature just really opens us up to a fresher, more vibrant world,” Robbi says. “It makes us more open to life and that’s so important to children.”

Good Reads:

Here are some books to get you and your children or grandchildren growing:

“Dig, Plant, Grow — A Kid’s Guide to Gardening” by Felder Rushing (Cool Springs Press)

“Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children” by Sharon Lovejoy (Workman Publishing)

“101 Kid Friendly Plants: Fun Plants and Family Garden Projects” by Cindy Krezel (Ball Publishing)

“Sunflower Houses: Inspiration from the Garden” by Sharon Lovejoy (Workman Publishing)