Regardless of the differences in background, attitude, or experience, garden play is great for child development & health. I have worked with kids in the garden for quite a while now and if there is one thing that is universally appealing to all children outdoors, it is the desire to play. I don’t mean an organized game of tag, but instead a lighthearted, playful approach to the garden. Garden play helps kids engage their senses and connect with nature and the world around them.
Some children are at home up to their elbows in the soil, while others may be a bit leery of getting dirty. Some have a curiosity for the creatures that inhabit the space and others may get the willies from all the creepy crawlies. Regardless of the differences in background, attitude, or experience, the garden can be a fun place to play. Some kids just need a little help getting interested.
Break down barriers to experiencing the garden at a young age by engaging the senses.
SIGHT: Kids can see all that grows in the garden, but they can also use their eyes to inspect it. Have them pick flowers and pull them apart to get a closer look. Collect bugs in a Mason jar and feed them some leaves. Play “I Spy” and see how many new things they can observe in the outdoor space.
SMELL: The aroma of the garden is intoxicating! Try smelling different flowers to see how they differ from each other, or even try smelling different colors of flowers of the same kind and talk about what you learn.
TASTE: Picking berries fresh from the garden to eat must be the single most powerful form of garden play. I plant blueberries, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, and ground cherries all for the simple pleasure of snacking out in the garden. I never grow enough to bring indoors and all the kids who visit my house know how to pick a bush clean in no time flat! Herb leaves offer a fun tasting project as well. Pick a few different kinds of herbs and let kids try to identify them just from taste. Get ready for some funny faces when chives or rosemary get chomped. Their palettes will grow the more they snack. You may even get them to fall in love with kale!
TOUCH: Feel the soft leaves of lamb’s ear, the spiky casing of a chestnut, the warmth of river stones set in the sun, or the squishy guts of a freshly-harvested tomato. There is no end to what little hands can get into in the garden.
SOUND: Ask kids to identify the sounds they hear in the garden. Is there running water, buzzing bees, or chirping birds? How many different things make up the musical score which plays in the background? Ask kids to imitate the sounds and find the source.
Creative expression, learning, and confidence will all develop naturally from a comfortable place to play.
Here are a few more projects that may help to engage kids and warm them up to getting a little dirt under their fingernails!