N.B. WARNING: Young children should be supervised in a garden since some plants may be poisonous or harmful in other ways.

The garden offers parents and grandparents many opportunities to enjoy their preschoolers and impart their love of and respect for nature to them. Colors, textures, shapes, and fragrances abound and offer many possibilities for sharing and learning. You can tailor a garden to the needs of children but you don’t have to; your garden probably has all it needs to catch the fancy of a toddler and all you have to do become aware of what you have and share it with your child.

Most young children are attracted to color and what better way to teach or practice colors than to let your toddler find a flower in a color you call out? For example, you might have him find a yellow zinnias, orange marigold, red salvia, or blue ageratum. Perhaps your toddler knows pastel colors too, so you could have her find pink geraniums or lavender astilbe in the garden beds. Use whatever flowers you have and make a game of it.

Let your toddler feel some of the textures found in your garden. Look around your garden and identify plants that have flowers, fruits, stems, buds, or leaves that can be described by such adjectives as fuzzy, bumpy, slimy, rough, hairy, soft, papery, silky, fluffy, prickly, sticky, smooth, waxy, puckered, and lacey. Here are some possibilities; the leaves of Lamb’s ear or fiddlehead of fern (hairy), lichens on a rock (rough), carpet of moss (soft), flower of coneflower (prickly), leaves of hosta “Frances Williams’ (puckered), algae on a rock (slimy), rose petals (silky), and the buds of pussywillow (fuzzy).

Interesting fragrances are another way to engage a toddler in the garden. Roses, lavender, and gardenia all have scents that may be familiar to a child. The fragrance of Lilies of the valley, hyacinths, lilacs, stargazer lilies, garden phlox, and flowering tobacco are sweet and pleasant but probably new to her. If you grow herbs, show your child how to gently crush the leaves and smell them. Rosemary, thyme, basil and mint are especially nice smelling herbs.

Some plants or their parts have very unique forms. Hens and chickens or sprays of old fashioned bleeding heart are sure to please any child. Some other plants with interesting flower forms are columbine, spider flower (Cleome), balloon flower, calla lily, fushia, foxglove, gooseneck loosestrife, love lies bleeding, and snapdragon. The curly stems of Henry Lauder’s walking stick , the winged stems of Euonymus alatus, and the pods of castor bean are an intriguing sight and fun to touch too.

Your garden probably already attracts butterflies but if you want to attract swallowtails (and who doesn’t) plant some species that they like. Butterfly bush, butterfly weed, and lantana are swallowtail favorites and will attract other kinds of butterflies too. If you plant rue, fennel and parsley you will also be providing food for the caterpillars that will grow into adult butterflies. Yes, the caterpillars may denude your plants but the leaves will grow back quickly. Butterflies need water but can’t drink it from open water so provide them with wet sand or dirt. Shrubs will give them protection from wind, predators, and the heat of the day.

Birds are another feature of a garden that is appealing to children (and everyone else too). Attract them with a birdbath, and the seeds from plants in the garden. Common plants that attract birds are dogwood, bee balm, golden rod, purple coneflower, sunflower, floss flower (ageratum), cosmos, Spider plant (Cleome), Snapdragon, Tickseed, and celosia. Notice that some of these attract butterflies too. If hummingbirds are your particular grow flowers for them. They like red tubular flowers such as honeysuckle, trumpet vine, cardinal vine, foxglove, columbine, and fuchsia but also are attracted by hollyhock, butterfly weed, cosmos, lupine, dahlia, petunia, zinnia, flowering tobacco, lilac, iris, weigela, and butterfly bush. Again notice that many of these plants have been mentioned before and do double or triple duty.

Don’t forget the squirrels that may scurry around, the gentle giants of the garden (the bumble bees) or the worms and grubs in the soil and under the rocks. Maybe you will get lucky and find a frog or turtle; perhaps even a snake. They are all part of the garden and can be enjoyed by everyone.

The most important part of bringing a young child into the garden is to help him see the beauty and wonder and learn respect for it all. The attention span of a young child is short and if you can impart one new idea to her in a whole day you have accomplished something good and you can count the experience a success. Have fun and enjoy!

Let Us Know:

What plants do your young children especially like?

What things do you explore with your toddlers?

By Karen