I’ve always known that gardens are good for children, but last spring and summer I discovered they are also good for grandmothers.
Limited school and daycare options in 2020 gave me a chance to spend lots of time with my six grandchildren who, at the time, ranged in age from 1 to 9. While I never kept all six at once without adult backup, I often had four of them all to myself at a time and my primary goal, other than keeping them safe, was to keep them engaged with something besides electronic gadgets.
Indoor crafts, games and even yoga (those sessions were particularly hilarious) helped, but the best option proved to be spending time outside. Sometimes sprinklers and wading pools were involved, or I’d pay each a small stipend to help fill bird feeders, pull weeds, plant herbs and flowers and perform other kid-safe gardening chores. Most often, however, we would explore and turn that exploration into a game or project. Here are a few that required little to no equipment or supplies.
Garden Hunt: Each carrying a repurposed paper gift bag (I knew I was saving them for something), the kids and I wandered around my yard collecting random items such as pinecones, leaves, moss, feathers, rocks, flowers and the like. Once the hunt was over, they’d pour out their finds, count their booty and compare their treasures with one another.
Nature Art: Using empty boxes, craft paper and school glue, garden hunt items and other outdoor treasures became fairy and gnome houses and stunning works of collaged art.
Yard Spy: A walk around the yard, my neighborhood or a local park became an I Spy game for spotting birds, insects, trees, flowers and other natural wonders. We’d research them as we went. (Yes, a cell phone was involved with that project.)
Stick Houses: We collected fallen sticks and branches and stacked or lashed them together with string to make lean-tos and forts. (No, they were not up to code, but they were safe.)
It’s probably obvious that I had no idea what I was doing, and the results weren’t always idyllic — sometimes the forts collapsed, sometimes the heat or bugs were more than any of us could bear and there were often fusses among the grands that required me to totally abandon my unflappable, doting grandma persona. Still, we apparently made good memories because now when the kiddos come to visit, they often ask to be outside. They also accidentally learned about plants, animals, life cycles, and even such basics as math, science, colors and more.
It proved what Susan Forbes, outreach liaison with the multi-faceted gardening-focused nonprofit O Grows in Opelika, recently said to me: “Everything you need to know about life, you can learn from a garden.” I’m taking Susan’s words to heart as I head out into the garden this summer with the grandkids, though I will also have longer, better researched list of ideas that I’ve gathered from a variety of sources. If you’re a parent, grandparent, caregiver or educator looking for ideas, check out the resources below. And share your own with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Alabama Living’s Facebook page (@AlabamaLivingMagazine).
Local botanic, public and community gardens, parks and wildlife centers often have children’s gardening and outdoor programs and resources; local schools may also have summer gardening programs. In addition, try these:
• Kids Gardening, a national nonprofit providing resources for educators and caregivers: KidsGardening.org
• Junior Master Gardener programs, available in many Alabama counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Aces.edu/blog/topics/outdoor-education-4-h/junior-master-gardener
• The Garden Club of Alabama has a variety of project ideas for kids on their website, GardenClubofAlabama.org
• Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots: Gardening Together with Children is one of several award-winning and idea-filled books by Sharon Lovejoy, all of which are chock full of ideas and inspiration.