Essential Resources: Gardening - Dig in!
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Nicole Weinstein explains the benefits of gardening for young children and takes a look at some of the best resources on offer
Even the smallest wonders of nature can fascinate young children to observe. A tiny seedling spouting into a herb, turning over the soil to find worms, bugs and grubs, and digging into raised beds, are all fun and satisfying activities for young children.
Alana Cama, who manages the RHS Campaign for School Gardening, says, ‘Many nurseries used their gardens a lot during the first lockdown, with springtime being the perfect growing season. Being in the garden gives children space to relax and escape from the worries of the pandemic. It also engages the brain and helps them connect with nature, which is important for their well-being.’
Julie Mountain, outdoor learning and play consultant and director of Play Learning Life, says, ‘There are plenty of opportunities to garden in all seasons… plant seeds now for spring and summer flowers. Plant vegetables and soft fruit such as strawberries from seedlings for late spring and early summer fruits.’
Nursery gardens tend to fall into three categories:
Sensory gardens are ideal for very young children as they offer opportunities to feel, taste and smell an array of herbs and specially selected plants.
Ms Cama says, ‘If you’ve got the space, grow grasses that make lovely sounds. Herbs are very simple to grow – use pots if you don’t have much space. Also, growing in pots is great for smaller hands. But don’t be too precious about plants – children are likely to pull things out, which is all part of learning. Just allow them to explore.’
Wildlife gardens enable children to observe growth and learn about lifecycles. To attract birds, children can make bird feeders by pressing lard and nuts and seeds into pine cones or yoghurt pots, hanging them from trees. Ponds are also great for observing newts and water boatmen insects, as long as they are made safe. A strong metal mesh over a pond prevents children from falling in – or make a mini pond with a washing-up bowl.
Edible gardens are always a winner, explains Ms Cama, who says it is a good idea to grow crops such as tomatoes and peas: vegetables and fruits that children can just pick and eat straight away.
‘When children have watched them grow and nurtured them, they are much more open to eating vegetables than they would be if they were just popped on their plate. It’s also great for all ages. They may not be able to plant them at a very young age, but they can watch them grow and eat them, with supervision.’
When deciding what planters or raised beds to use, think about the space available. If space is tight, use free-standing planters and pots that can easily be moved around.
Ms Cama says, ‘Raised beds are great if there’s no ground to dig into – or if you will be placing the soil directly onto the concrete. Just make sure the height is right for children and the plants you are using. Herbs don’t need much depth, but vegetables need deeper beds.
‘Raised beds can easily be made from planks of wood or palettes. It’s worth asking parents or local businesses, but make sure any reused materials are safe and have been sanded down.’
When it comes to choosing seeds, think about the size and how easy it will be for young children to plant small seeds. Sunflower seeds are large enough for small hands, as are pumpkin seeds, but they need more growing space. Tomato seeds are small, so children will need more support to sow them.
You may also want to offer resources such as water butts or compost bins to extend children’s opportunities for gardening.
Here are some resource ideas:
- Create raised beds to grow vegetables with slats of wood, or try the 2 Tier Rectangular Raised Bed, £104.95, from TTS; the Modular Planter, £114.99, from Hope Education; or the Raised Bed for Vegetables, £48, from Cosy. Spotty Green Frog sells a Long Wooden Raised Bed, £39.99. For space-saving options, try the Large Metal Hanging Caddy – Set of 3 from Hope Education, £29.99; the Ready To Grow Garden Planter, £144, from Sovereign; or the Vertical Herb Planter, £79.99, from Cosy.
- Use free-standing planters that are the right height for children. Try the Instant Garden Planters with Castors, £302.95, from TTS; or the Single Planter, £328.99, from Hope Education. The Corner Multiheight Planter, £63.99, from Cosy is good for children of different ages.
- If you can’t afford planters, use tyres, sinks, giant tin cans – as long as they have been made safe – or even wellies. But think about drainage, what surface you put the containers on and where the water will go. For some quirky ideas, see ‘Container planting with a twist’ on the RHS website.
- Using your own compost enriches the soil and gives children an awareness of the food cycle. Try the Composter, £66.99, from Cosy; or Spotty Green Frog’s Children’s Wooden Compost Bin, £84.99 (www.spottygreenfrog.co.uk).
- Provide opportunities for children to transport water to the planted area. If settings have a water butt with a tap, children become competent at filling up watering cans and taking them to plants that need watering. Try the 100 Litre Water Butt, £35.95, from TTS. Ensure it comes with a stand and lid for safety.
THE RIGHT TOOLS
Sets of child-sized hand tools, including trowels and short-handled gardening forks, and child-sized long-handled tools for digging, raking and sweeping, are essential, along with watering cans and wheelbarrows.
Although children are unlikely to be doing any hard landscaping, it is important that the tools are sturdy enough to allow them to dig deep.
Julie Mountain, outdoor learning and play consultant and director of Play Learning Life, advises settings to invest in good-quality scaled-down versions of adult tools. She explains, ‘Cheaper tools end up being replaced, not added to. I still have all of the Joseph Bentley, Bulldog and Spear & Jackson child-sized tools I ever bought – some are over 20 years old. The only thing I’ve had to regularly replace is the yard brushes.’
Ms Cama says before spending a lot of money, think about what you are trying to achieve. ‘Start small and you can always build up,’ she says. ‘Think about the type of garden you wish to create and the accompanying resources you may need. If trying to be sustainable, think about clever ways to get what you need: ask parents and local garden centres if they have leftover seeds or cuttings they can donate. Buy a good set of child-sized sturdy tools and ensure there are plenty of child-sized gardening gloves to go round, because some plants like daffodil bulbs and foxgloves are toxic.’
Wheelbarrows are a must. Carrying equipment from the shed to the garden is an activity that all children can be involved in – and they will love transporting plants and spades in child-sized wheelbarrows, or – a favourite of Ms Mountain’s – a folding garden trolley. She says, ‘The advantages are that it’s lighter for children to pull, and because it can be folded, it can store really easily.’
Here are some tools to consider:
- Provide good-quality, scaled-down versions of adult gardening tools, if your budget allows. Try Spear & Jackson’s Tiny Traditions Children’s Digging Spade, £19.99; or Children’s Trowel & Fork Set, £11.99, and Mini Lightweight Digging Shovel, £8.99, from Outdoor Learning Resources (https://outdoorlearningresources.co.uk).
- Educational suppliers also sell sturdy versions of child-sized gardening tools. First Tools Hand Tools, £22.99, from Hope, have durable metal heads; and Set of Small Garden Tools, £17.95, from Early Excellence, are a set of six.
- For tidying up the garden, try the Wooden Sweeping Brushes – Pack 4 from Hope Education, £24.49, or the pack of four Child’s Yard Brushes, £11.85, from Cosy.
- Popular in autumn, leaf rakes can also be used to cultivate the surface of the soil. Try the Leaf Rake, £14.99, from TTS; the Safe Plastic Leaf Rake, set of 4, £19.59, from Cosy. Or the Younger Children’s Rake, £6.50, from Spotty Green Frog.
- Provide watering cans in all shapes and sizes. Try to have at least two scaled-down versions, such as the clear Watering Can Classic, 2-pack, £9.99, from Cosy; or the 5 Litre Watering Can, £9.99, from Spotty Green Frog – and at least one full-sized adult watering can so that children get a full-body physical experience when transporting the water to the raised beds.
- Wheelbarrows are great for transporting materials around the garden. Try the metal Winther Wheelbarrow, £69.99, from Hope; or Cosy’s Folding Loose Parts Trolley, £39.99. For younger children who may not have the skill to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow with one wheel, try the Twigz Two Wheeled Metal Wheelbarrow, £49.95, from TTS.
- For starter sets of gardening tools and equipment, try the Primary School Garden Tools with Wheelbarrow, for children aged three to seven years, £145, from Spotty Green Frog; the eco-friendly Green Bean Garden Set of 16 pieces, £79.99, from Hope; or the 15-pack Twigz Children’s Gardening Tools, £95.95, from TTS. TTS also sells a lightweight Gardening Tools Kit, £116.95, with metal heads and comfortable grips, and a 5-pack of Child Size Gardening Gloves, £21.95.
- For a complete set of garden resources, try the Exploring Nature Collection, £395, from Early Excellence.