by Jean Ann Berkenpas

Above: Amos, Kestrel, Alma, Giovanna, Amber and River working in their individual garden plots. Mid-page: Garry and Wendy Lowe teach the children about saving seeds (Facing the camera are Carol Ann Romanow, Kestrel and Amos and Garry Lowe. Ruthie watering the plants. Monica Zieper teaches the children about bees. / SUBMITTED & JEAN ANN BERKENPAS.

The garden can be a rich sensory experience for people of all ages. Growing and tending plants allows children to learn about nature, science, and food. Of course playing in the dirt is always fun. Creating a sensory garden that stimulates children’s senses can be a great way to share an enjoyable learning environment with life skills built in.

Nancy Taylor has a wealth of experience teaching children’s summer gardening classes and food camps in the Robson Valley. When asked what kind of mindset is required of the adult in charge she says “play, play, play! It’s about process not end product.There is so much teaching and learning as they experience a garden, but I know so many adults who are turned off gardening because they ‘had’ to weed when they were kids. [Kids] need to see adults really enjoying it.”

To create a sensory garden for children, consider plants that will stimulate their five senses of sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing. Colorful edible flowers like nasturtiums, violets, and chive blossoms will appeal to both their sense of sight and taste. Hardy herbs with their strong flavors and scents will be interesting for children, and are great for blindfolded tasting and smelling games. Choose plants in a variety of textures and welcome birdsong by adding a bird feeder or birdbath.

Large seeds are best for planting activities. “Because [children] have such a short attention span you can do a planting activity with them, but it won’t hold them for long! Beans, peas, sunflowers, are good to start with. Planting beans in a clear plastic cup between the plastic and the soil is a great way for kids to watch the seed germinating and sprouting roots and leaves.” says Taylor.

Large and fast growing plants will attract children’s attention. Giant sunflower and kale varieties can create a jungle. A teepee of climbing beans or peas will tower over them and create a unique play space or outdoor napping room.

Being able to enjoy freely eating from the garden is also a huge draw. When dealing with very young children it is a good idea to make sure their play area is free of any poisonous plants that they might be tempted to taste. Educate older children about what parts of the plant to eat, and also what weeds and wild plants are edible. Plant extras of their favorites, to allow for grazing.

Harmony Dawn Lincoln, who gardens in the Open Gate Garden with her four year old son John, says that they often stay for lunch at the garden, adding to their lunch with the veggies that they pick fresh.

If the garden is a shared space, giving each child their own area to work and play can alleviate conflict and minimize unwanted trampling or pulling of plants. “We divided one of the raised beds up into 12 one foot sections – marked off with string threaded through eye screws. Each kid had their own little area and we just gave them seeds and let them go at it with minimal instruction. The results were amazing! I could have done a better job at observing and recording as the summer progressed but I believe they still got a lot out of it! Like giant radishes!” says Taylor.

Gardening does not need to be limited to outdoors, summer months, or even require a large garden space. This year Karen Doughty’s Grade 6/7 class is growing potatoes in buckets and sunflowers under growing lights. The plants are started early, so that students can eat the potatoes at the end of June. They also each get to take a sunflower home. “They love hands on stuff. They like getting the dirt ready, planting and watering,” says Doughty.

Garden activities do not have to be limited to growing and tending plants either. Taylor has found that children love painting rocks for the garden, or collecting stones to mark the rows. She also sets up a sandbox and play kitchen where kids can just enjoy being in the garden playing and getting their hands dirty.

Beyond the immediate play and learning experience, Taylor sees long term benefits of teaching children to grow plants. “Food security is linked to climate change, and our children will benefit from knowing how to grow food in the future” says Taylor.