Gardening with Kids, Part 2: The 5 Senses
Welcome back to my Gardening With Kids Series!
In Part 1, I talked about some very basic ideas for encouraging your kids to enjoy gardening. This time I want to dive into some specifics. Let’s start with that preschool favorite: the 5 senses. We all take things in through our senses, but kids are especially aware of these sensations—maybe because they are experiencing some of them for the first time. The more you can make your garden exciting to look at, smell, touch, taste, and hear, the more engaged your kiddos will be with it, especially your younger ones. As they get older, encourage them to seek out their own colors, tastes, smells, etc. that they want in their gardens.
Let’s talk about each one individually.
First up: Sight
This should be an easy one! There are so many colors of flowers to choose from, and even vegetables come in different colors. Choose bright colors in varying hues, or ask your child what their favorite color is and do your best to put in plants that are that color. You could even make a list together of all the vegetables that are red, for example, then find some of them to plant. Another way to do it is to take them with you to the nursery or garden center and just walk around looking at all the blooms. I’m sure you’ll find some in almost every color!
I know that my kids are always drawn to the varieties of vegetables that come in different colors, like ‘Rainbow Carrots’ (a mix of white, orange, purple, and red), ‘Royal Burgundy’ (purple) and yellow wax beans, and tomatoes with a variety of colors. The one exception to that was the purple potatoes that were purple on the inside too. Purple outsides? Awesome. Purple insides? Highly suspect and probably gross. They wouldn’t eat them! Ha! Lesson learned. The next year we planted purple potatoes that were still white on the inside! By the way, did you know that purple beans are magical? That’s right. They change colors from purple to green when you cook them. Fun times!
Beyond just colors, there are other ways to make your garden visually interesting for children. Put in a whirligig for them to watch, or paint some rocks together and let them decide where to put them outside. You can also add playful or whimsical touches for them to find—fairy doors at the base of trees or sheds, a fun little statue hidden amongst the flowers—that kind of thing. My in-laws have an assortment of different little statues placed around their flowerbeds, and the kids enjoy seeing them and finding them all.
Here’s an idea from Pinterest that I just loved: Glass Marbles in Your Fence. The idea is that you drill holes in your wooden fence, just slightly smaller than a marble, then push the marbles into the holes. The wood should hold them there. As the sun hits them, they catch the light and glow! Alas, I found the idea many years ago, and we have yet to have the right type of wooden fence to try it out on! Maybe I need to do it to something else around here…
My first thought with this one is wind chimes. As it turns out, I am quite picky when it comes to wind chimes, and I have yet to find a set that makes that type of sound I would enjoy on a regular basis. (Not that I’ve made a concerted effort to find one, you understand, just a casual perusal of the selection in various stores.) If you’re the DIY type, I would again direct you to Pinterest. There are many, many DIY wind chime ideas, with everything from old utensils, to metal washers, to actual instruments (think tamborines) hung up on a string. Let your kiddo pick one that suits their fancy and make it together!
If you’re not so much into wind chimes, you may also consider putting up a rain chain from your downspout. The water trickling down the chain will make a music all its own. Along those same lines, any type of fountain or water feature will provide some soothing sounds. Of course, with little ones you have to be careful putting in a water feature, but I’m sure you already thought of that!
If you’re really getting into it—and maybe have neighbors that are gone during the day!—you could even add a musical wall outside. Turn one section of your fence into the music room, and include things to bang on or plink, bells to ring, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, you could do a Sound Scavenger Hunt, with specific sounds from the natural world to check off: a bee buzzing, a bird chirping, water trickling, and so on.
If there are unpleasant sounds that come into your garden often—like traffic—consider adding some of these just as a barrier to help everyone tune out those less enjoyable noises.
This is a category that some intentional effort can really make a difference in your child’s enjoyment of the garden. Let’s face it, a “hands-off” garden won’t be very appealing to kids. Not that you can’t have your flowerbeds or other places that are off-limits, but create a special flowerbed or even a flowerpot full of things that they CAN touch. They will love it!
There are many plants that are soft and silky, and practically beg to be touched and petted. Some of our favorite plants that are soft on the hands (or feet!): lamb’s ears, bunny tails grass, regular lawn grass, and individual flower petals. There are some slightly prickly plants that make for an interesting variation as well, like the cones of the purple coneflower.
For this one, I would also think about having some flowers in the garden that they are allowed to pick. I’ve always said dandelions are fair game for any child who wants to pick them! Most of the others they have to ask me first, unless it’s just one they found out in the back field. One of my favorite shrubs is the snowball bush—it’s a type of viburnum. I remember picking a “snowball” as a kid and shaking all the florets loose to “snow” in the summer. My kids did the same thing with our snowball bush in Washington! Something about those soft white flowers falling down is so delightful.
Be on the lookout for any plants that should definitely not be touched, like poison ivy, and get rid of it as soon as possible. I have some friends that don’t have any roses in their gardens, because they hate the thorns! I am not in that camp—I put at least 1 rose in every flowerbed!—but I do try to choose shrubs that are less sharp to put near sidewalks, pathways, and anywhere the kids play on a regular basis.
Gardens naturally come with some good smells, so this one shouldn’t be too hard to get going. For the vegetable garden, put in some herbs! We grew pineapple sage one year that smelled amazing. Mint of any kind should probably be grown in a pot to contain it, but most other herbs can grow right in the ground. It’s wonderful to have an assortment, so that the kids can pick a leaf of each one and smell the difference.
Of course, many flowers have a delightful fragrance. Have you ever noticed the scent of a bearded iris? It is one of my favorites. Honeysuckle, roses, mockorange, petunias, pansies, and many more. Good smelling flowers are one reason I am a flower farmer!
Not every scent has to be floral, however. Some plants just have a strong smell of their own. Have your kids see how many scented leaves they can find in your garden. They may come back with tomatoes, marigolds, or geraniums, in addition to the herbs.
Notice the good-smelling things yourself, and point them out to your kids. Even just the smell of the dirt after a rain, or an unusually scented weed (pineapple weed anyone?) can add to the gardening fun.
This is the main one I covered in part 1, so I won’t go over it too much again here. Just—grow things they can snack on! Fruits, vegetables. Let them taste some of the herbs you grow, or if they’re old enough, introduce them to edible flowers. Of course, you’ll want to make sure they know only certain flowers can be eaten safely! Nasturtiums, pansies & violas, and squash blossoms are all edible, for a start. Make a salad garnished with edible flowers, or freeze one per ice cube for a pretty addition to summer lemonade.
Speaking of lemonade, do you know what’s REALLY good? Make some blackberry mint lemonade sometime. It is amazing! To add in the mint, put a generous handful of leaves in a blender with a small amount of water and blend it up. Then pour it through a strainer to just let the liquid go into your pitcher. Make your lemonade as usual, but also add in a cup or so of blackberries. Use a spoon to partially smash the berries before adding them, to get more of their delicious flavor and pretty color in your drink. Yum. Now I’m craving blackberry mint lemonade!
These ideas are just to give you a start. I’m sure you’ll come up with more as you think about how to incorporate the 5 senses into your garden. I would love to hear what you come up with!