A garden - the perfect, outdoor summer classroom. In a medium that is hands-on and does not have to be censored, a garden can keep your child learning and curious during the summer and possibly sow the seeds of a lifelong hobby, interest, or even vocation. Of course, science is the obvious "course" in the garden with botany, biology, horticulture, and ecology lessons already prepared. Math, art, literature, and even social studies activities can also be integrated into your gardening "curriculum."
It's all there in your own backyard if you have a garden. If not, you can create container gardens using interesting finds and recycles for containers. Even old shoes and boots make interesting containers.
Less expensive than video games, with a garden, you actually get a return on your investment (a lesson in economics!) with the beauty and fragrance of flowers, the harvest of fresh vegetables and the pride of creating and growing a garden. Family togetherness and serenity are additional, intangible benefits from garden activities.
A child's garden is just that - a place for a child to observe, explore, and interact with nature in its purest form. It doesn't have to be large; in fact, small is good, so that it is not overwhelming or intimidating. As the child and his or her interests grow, then the size of the garden can grow also. Child-sized garden tools help master the chores in the garden, making them more like fun than work. Even old spoons can be "'borrowed" for small hands to use for digging.
Getting started is simple - a small plot of dirt or potting soil, plastic pots or clean yogurt containers, and a variety of seeds are the basics - nothing elaborate or expensive. A garden is not for instant gratification. Instead, it encourages and teaches patience as we check, double check, and even triple check to see whether the seed treasures we buried in the soil have peeked out from their hiding places. However, fast-sprouting, quick-growing plants are best for younger children to maintain their interest. Sunflowers, radishes, marigolds, lettuce, gourds, beans, and nasturtiums are good for first-time, eager gardeners and are almost fail-proof.
A seed is a promise for the future. From all sizes like specks of dust, barely visible to the unaided eye, to baseball-size coconuts, they hold all the genetic information and nutrients to help fulfill the promise. Just add soil, water, light and TLC. Tiny seeds can become jumbo, heavy weight tomatoes or huge pumpkins that can grow into the pump"kings" of the garden.
Garden "families" that have giant as well as miniature members are fun for children and can teach them the variety and diversity of similar plants. Tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, and zinnias all have both jumbo and pixie sizes, plus they are easy to grow. Children can practice measuring and weighing pumpkins, watermelons and tomatoes during their growth cycles, while the prolific zucchini is especially noted for its length. There are many contests for the biggest specimen of these plants where young gardeners can show off the fruits of their labor. At the other extreme are the miniatures - patio or bite size tomatoes, "baby" basketball-sized watermelons, and mini pumpkins that just fit a small hand.
These plants also provide other fun diversions for children in the garden. Some boast nontraditional colors like orange tomatoes and ghostly white or gray pumpkins. Melons, pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers are excellent for "tattoos" or autographs. Just gently scratch your name or a design in the fruit when it is small. As it grows, the "tattoo" or signature will grow and expand with the plant.
The fast-growing sunflower can become a yardstick to compare a child's height with the sunflower's growth. When the sunflower head is just taller than the child, mark his or her height on the stem with a bright ribbon. Watch as the ribbon grows higher and higher as the sunflower eventually towers above the child. Sunflower heads also make interesting autumn decorations and good bird feeders to invite birds to your yard in the autumn and winter.
Every child needs a magical, enchanted place to daydream, imagine, and make-believe. A towering teepee of beans, nasturtiums or any fast-growing, climbing plants provides a perfect child's retreat. A simple frame can be made with six bamboo poles or even broom sticks approximately six feet long. Plant the base firmly in the soil in the shape of a "C." The opening will be the door. Tie together at the top with rope or old nylon hose. Plant beans, nasturtiums, morning glories, or other vining plants at the base of each pole. For an "indoor - outdoor" carpet, plant shade-loving grass seed inside the teepee and you have a shady retreat perfect for picnics, games, tea parties, reading, or even a camouflage fort.
The garden is a dynamic microworld that changes seasonally, daily, and even hourly. Simple activities from the "good old days" like a garden scavenger hunt, fashioning flower dolls from hollyhock blossoms, crafting miniature boats from pea pods, or making seed collages and pressing flowers can encourage creativity and pass the summer hours while making pleasant memories for the future.