Cultivating Green Thumbs

By Mike Russell (parent at Hawthorne Family Playschool)

We come full circle, returning to Sauvie Island to pick strawberries where the pumpkins we harvested last Fall once grew. It’s a joyous time for everyone. Most of the parents join in. Everyone goes home with days’ (hours’?) worth of strawberries.This is a great opportunity to nourish children’s interest in the connection between their bodies and Nature. They literally get to touch and taste the fruits of the earth. Experiencing that connection in such sharp, sweet clarity can extend an ongoing classroom conversation about where our food comes from. That conversation can lead to an ongoing experiment throughout the summer: gardening. It’s a short hop from strawberry-picking to digging in a patch of dirt back home. Long after the taste of summer’s first fruit has faded away, gardening activities can keep little ones engaged in the Nature-body interface. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Designate a child-specific plot

This is a space where they get to call the shots. While you’re rooting around in the garden beds, or treading lightly so as to leave the roots to work in peace, your little ones could tend to their own garden bed. It might be as simple as that—a place to play in the dirt—or it could incorporate seed-planting, watering, weeding and, eventually, the harvest.


Newly planted seeds grow best in loose, well-turned soil. While turning up the dirt in any garden bed, you will likely encounter clods that have compacted over the winter. Breaking up those dirt clods could be an amusing and helpful activity for you to share in. (Our son delighted in exploding dirt clods with a 2-lb. Rubber mallet.) The activity promotes eye-hand coordination, invites a conversation about plant roots’ preference for loose soil, and will likely uncover some worms in their native habitat; another great opportunity for teaching more about soil’s origins, and practicing care for vulnerable creatures.


This essential activity invites eager engagement—especially when the daytime temperatures heat up—and many conversation prompts, including: Why do plants need to be watered? How much water is good, too much, or too little? Why is that? Where does the water go after it seeps down below the roots? If, when it comes to gardening, you’re all thumbs, and none of them are green, just start small. You and your littles can have plenty of fun on a small scale with radishes or beans. Radishes germinate faster than most vegetables. Place a packet of their seeds in a pot of potting soil, water lightly every other day, and their wee leaves will sprout up in just a few days.

For a faster payoff, and a bigger finale, grab a packet of pole beans. Soak them in a cup overnight, then keep them sandwiched in a moist paper towel. In a day or two, the two halves of the beans will reveal a baby root and stem emerge. (You may have some memory of this activity from a middle-school biology class.) Once the novelty of this phase has worn off (or another two days have passed), plant those delicate baby beans in a pot of soil. Give them something to climb and regular care, and they will grow before your eyes every day before yielding that tasty payoff.

Does this post remind you of a childhood experience gardening? What’s another gardening activity you share with the littles in your life? Please let us know in the comments section, below.

Check out HFP’s list of recommended garden-themed picture books.

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