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Put the fun in fundamentals
School will be out soon, but children can keep right on learning this summer in a little outdoor classroom of their own. Whether it's a small sunny border along a fence or a few plant pots, providing soil where children can plan and plot what they'd like to grow is a good way to get them away from video games and television, and on to something fascinating and worthwhile.
"There are so many things children can learn from gardening -- from the basic colors and math to nurturing, persistence and the cycles of life and death," said Melanie Harding, program developer for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance in Chicago. "Getting started can be as easy as pulling out paper, drawing a square of your back yard and letting the child take part in figuring out what to plant."And nurturing a tiny seed, which has life in it, can set the groundwork for how well children care for themselves and others in the future. But the key to an enjoyable first-time experience is allowing the child to have fun. "Don't make it work, make it play," says Sharon Lovejoy, author of "Sunflower Houses: Inspiration from the Garden" (Workman, 144 pages, $13.95). "Let them be in charge. Take them along to the garden center where they can pick out their own seeds and plants."
Get them started with fun projects, such as growing a "fast-food" salad garden, where they can sow seeds of leaf lettuce, radishes, basil or dill in the ground or in a pot that has drainage holes and is filled with lightweight potting mix. The makings for a pizza patch include tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, oregano, basil and onions. Or there's the salsa garden with tomatoes, cilantro, chili peppers and onions. Choose a sunny location that receives six or more hours of direct sun each day. If they will be gardening in containers, look for dwarf or compact varieties of vegetables.
"Get them involved by making gardening relevant to their life," Harding says. "The more kids can see food growing, the more interested they are in eating it."
For most kids, speed is of the essence, so fast-growing crops such as beans, cucumbers, squash, gourds and pumpkins will capture their attention. Children can learn to compare how much money they've saved their family by weighing and keeping track of cucumbers or tomatoes that they've grown. At the end of the season, they can multiply the number of pounds they've harvested by the average price at the local store.
Children can sow seeds or plant vegetables or flowers outdoors after the last spring frost date, which usually occurs about May 15. Have them use math to plot the garden, multiplying the length by the width of the space, Harding says. A 6-by-6-foot garden is 36 square feet and a basic rule is to allow 1 square foot for every plant.
A good project for preschool children is a flower garden based on the colors they like. Let them pick annuals such as marigolds, ageratum, zinnias, cosmos and other easy-to-grow flowers, and help your children plant them in a sunny spot. Help them write the names of the flowers and the colors on large wooden sticks -- paint stirrers are good for this purpose -- placed next to each plant.
And don't forget that small hands need small tools. "I've had a lot of fun with my 3-year-old niece and nephew, giving them gardening tools that are their size -- a little rake, shovel and wheelbarrow," Harding says. "They can mirror what I'm doing."
Children can also document their garden's progress in an inexpensive notebook, recording when seeds, flowers or vegetables were planted. They can take photos or make drawings to illustrate their successes or their discoveries of weird bugs or beautiful butterflies.
And then there's always fun with worms. "I love homemade [worm bins]," says Felder Rushing, author of "Dig, Plant, Grow -- A Kid's Guide to Gardening" (Cool Springs Press, 160 pages, $16.99) "Kids can use red wriggler worms to turn moist, shredded newspaper and vegetables, fruit and eggshell scraps into compost. It can be done in soda bottles or sweater boxes with tight-fitting lids." (Red wrigglers, also known as red wigglers, are available at bait shops or for sale on the Internet.) Children and adults will discover more about worms, compost and the many benefits of recycling garden waste and kitchen scraps at the University of Illinois Extension's Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/hom ecomposting/worm.html.
Harmony Picciuca, demonstration garden coordinator for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, shares these tips for getting children interested in gardening:
Try vegetables. "I like to grow food with kids and I like to use themes," Picciuca says. This year, she's planning a "bite-size" garden display filled with small vegetables such as Sungold cherry tomatoes, radishes and Tangerine sweet peppers. "Look for vegetables with fun names," she suggests. Dragon's Tongue beans and Jack Be Little pumpkins are just a few child-friendly edibles.
Plant a butterfly garden and discover which winged wonders and their offspring will visit. Nectar plants include coneflowers, zinnias, monarda and butterfly bush. Plant seeds of parsley, dill and fennel for butterfly caterpillars to munch on.
Focus on a color scheme. "Ask children what their favorite color is and let them select plants around that color," Picciuca says. "If they like purple, there are purple beans, purple kale and purple eggplant."
Relax."Kids really love dirt and digging in it," Picciuca says. "Saying that's OK to do is important -- that freedom [to explore] is really good."
You can find more tips and ideas for gardening with children on the Web:
The National Gardening Association offers a primer for parents and teachers at kids gardening.com/primer.asp.
Find ideas on kid-friendly gardening at the University of Illinois Extension's Web site, "My First Garden," urban ext.uiuc.edu/firstgarden.
Visit Garfield Park Conservatory's Web site for info on the demonstration gardens and "family fun" events at garfield conservatory.org
"Dig, Plant, Grow -- A Kid's Guide to Gardening" by Felder Rushing (Cool Springs Press, 160 pages, $16.99), for ages 8 to 12; feldrushing.net
"Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children" by Sharon Lovejoy (Workman Publishing, 159 pages, $13.95); sharonlovejoy.com.
"101 Kid Friendly Plants: Fun Plants and Family Garden Projects" by Cindy Krezel (Ball Publishing, 160 pages, $19.95), available in April