Almost all gardening involves hands-on activities that even young children can do, from planting seeds to harvesting and eating. I recommend planting at least some vegetables that sprout and grow quickly, like beans, because the rapid changes excite children’s interest. Children also love harvesting anything they have to dig for. Potatoes, for example, are a favorite. Carrots are also fun to harvest because children can pull them up easily and are pleasantly surprised with the colorful roots they uncover. Children also enjoy harvesting foods that they can eat right away. For example, we grow berries and figs so that we can forage for snacks in the summer time.
I also recommend using the garden to engage children’s observational skills. Each year, we plant fennel and dill, which are host plants for the Swallowtail butterfly. My children love searching through these herbs for caterpillars. I also let plants go to seed so that they attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. I cultivate observational skills by asking open-ended questions like, “what do you see?” and “what’s different today?”
There is a progression to each plant's life cycle, and it’s wonderful to experience each step together. Encourage children to notice this progression, and have them participate in each part of it. For example, each January my children and I start tomatoes inside from seed and excitedly wait for them to germinate and form a furry white root. Then we wait for the first set of leaves to form, followed by the second set. In February, we transplant the seedlings to a larger pot before hardening off the plants outdoors. Come March, we plant out and watch the tomatoes reach for the sky. We soon notice flowers and observe fruit form where the flowers were once blooming. When the tomatoes come off easily from the plant, they are ready to harvest. The popular opinion at my house is that tomatoes taste best right there in the garden. If the summer heat doesn’t kill the tomato plants, the first fall frost does. We cut down the plants, chop them up, and add them to the compost bin. The children and adults take turns turning the compost bin and occasionally look inside to see how things are breaking down. Eventually, this compost is used in the garden to nourish the soil for the following batch of tomatoes.