Do you really want to give your kids a great toy? Let them do as children have done for millennia: introduce them to the simple pleasures of the garden.

It is a busy time of year in the garden, and young children (and puppies) can make growing food a challenge. Overcoming this challenge is well worth the effort, as the benefits of growing your own organic food are numerous for your family. For example, organic gardening with children helps establish healthy eating habits, as children are more prone to taste and enjoy foods they have grown themselves. In fact, in my opinion, the best natural toy for children is a garden. Luther Burbank wrote,

Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, and mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lillies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.
The garden provides a unique environment for children to explore the natural world and combat nature deficit disorder. There are many tiny creatures to explore and the wonders of plant life never cease to amaze a child. Children also love to explore the garden with their friends. Here are 10 tips for organic gardening with small children I have collected from experience and gardening friends:
  • Wear your baby: All over the world women can be seen working in the fields while wearing their babies. In The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, a Chinese peasant delivers her baby in the field and goes back to work! Backpacks and other baby-wearing devices aren’t just for hiking, as they can provide a secure place for your baby to rest while you pull weeds, hoe, water, etc.
  • Provide child-sized garden tools and gloves: Children love to imitate their adult models, and imitation is an important part of their play development. By providing children with appropriately sized tools, not only can they help in the garden, but also they work in their own garden beds.
  • Establish a garden bed just for your child: One of the hardest parts about gardening with children is letting go of your perfect rows or plant spacing. By establishing a garden bed just for your child, you give him his own space to experiment in, while you work on more delicate garden tasks. In addition, your child’s garden bed will provide him with a sense of autonomy in the garden.
  • Plant a strawberry patch: This is my lifesaver in the garden! Not only does our organic strawberry patch provide us with delicious fruit, but also it entertains my children for countless hours as they hunt for strawberries. Children as young as 2 are quite capable of picking and eating their own strawberries in the garden. Plant everbearing varieties to have strawberries all summer long.
  • Read children’s literature about gardening: There are countless children’s books about gardening. Connecting literacy to the garden will not only teach your children about growing food, but it will make them excited to work in the garden. My favorites are A Handful of Sunshine by Melanie Eclare, How Groundhog’s Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry, and Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens.
  • Place outdoor toys in the garden: Strategically placing outdoor toys in the garden allows parents to supervise their children while working with plants. A sand box is ideal for garden entertainment. Z Recommends suggests a plastic playhouse from Freecycle in their garden; however, aesthetics and ecofriendliness are to be considered before making this choice. A hanging art easel can be clipped to the garden fence to allow your budding artist another activity while you garden.
  • Get dirty: One of the best organic gardeners and cooks I know provided this tip. Turn on a hose or sprinkler in a unplanted portion of the garden and let your children frolic in the mud. This is a great option when you already have a bath planned for your children.
  • Make gardening part of your daily routine: Young children thrive on routines. By making gardening part of your daily routine, not only will your garden be beautiful and bountiful, but your children will look forward to this time of day. Soon your children will start to select their own tasks in the garden from their familiarity with this daily chore.
  • Wear sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: Protect your children from the elements. Your child will not want to return to the garden, if she associates it with getting a sun burn.
  • Involve children from the start!: If you start your plants in a greenhouse, be sure to include your child in this process. Young children love to fill up pots with planting soil and are quite capable of handling large seeds, such as squashes and melons. If you purchase plants and seeds, take your child with you to the plant nursery and let her select some of the seedlings and seed packets (including plants for her own garden bed). By being involved from planting to harvesting, young children will fully reap the benefits of organic gardening!