This school year, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching gardening to children at the Episcopal School of Knoxville. And it has truly been a pleasure. Children have said that gardening is their favorite class, one child said it was more fun than recess, and two young ladies told me they want to be garden teachers when they grow up.
Yet figuring out exactly how to teach gardening to children has been a bit of a challenge. Though an overwhelming number of books and resources are available on gardening in general, scant few of them address the process of teaching gardening to children. Even books that claim to teach children will simply tell you the basics of constructed raised beds, getting a garden started, or how to grow various veggies – NOT how to present these skills and concepts specifically to children.
Many Episcopal parishes and schools are getting ready to involve children in garden projects, community gardens, and Vacation Bible School or Lenten programs centered on the Abundant Life Garden Project by Episcopal Relief & Development. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the last few months in teaching gardening to children in group settings:
• Teach the basics. In teaching children from mostly suburban neighborhoods, I’ve found the need for simple demonstrations on things like how to put on garden gloves, the names of basic garden tools and how to use them, safety rules in using garden tools, and how to weed.
• Children need a defined space in which to work. Turning a group of children loose on a vegetable garden can lead to absolute chaos. We’ve used the “square foot gardening" concepts and techniques to create small definite spaces in which each child has an opportunity to plant a seed or bulb in a specific place. Assigning two or three children to each raised bed has also been successful.
• Children love hands-on garden work. Two of my most popular lessons have been “weeding” and “how to use a trowel/hoe/shovel.” In a world where children are often overscheduled and are getting huge amounts of “input” in their lives, they seem to need some “down time” to simply pull weeds or work in the dirt. I’ve noticed that children also love to do manual work – a huge contrast to sitting at desks all day, and seemingly a welcome contrast to brain work or more organized activities.
• Don’t sweat the small stuff. Seeds get dropped. Newly planted seeds get hoed over and spread someplace you didn’t intend. In working with children, you can’t worry about your garden being “perfect” (not that anything is perfect, anyway!).
In Part 2, I’ll share some informational resources that have been especially helpful in this process.
Photo: Cindy Coe (back row) with her gardening students. Courtesy of Kelly Norrell for Episcopal School of Knoxville.