It was our first spring day digging into the vegetable garden. I was planting lettuce seeds in a raised bed while my husband cleared an area for sugar snap peas. My three-year-old daughter was puttering around with a kids’ shovel when she wasn’t climbing Mount Woodchip. I had my back to her at the time when suddenly she yelled out:
“Mom, I planted the peas!”
I turned around to find a nice 12-inch-long strip of fresh soil piled up with about 25 pea seeds thrown on top. I took a moment to consider the situation.
Now I might have said, “Honey, we don’t plant peas that closely together” or “Oh no, that’s not where the peas are going.” But I stopped myself. I stood quietly for a moment and took in her beaming smile of pride and realized this was an opportunity.
“Wow,” I said, “That’s a lot of peas. They’re your favorite aren’t they?”
Without saying a word to each other, my husband and I were on the same page.
“Do you want your own garden space?” he asked her.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
So, he handed her a rake and joined her, right there in that spot where she had thrown the peas, and they cleared out a big square, put a trellis in the middle, and moved the pea seeds ever so gently to surround the trellis. I came over with the lettuce seeds I had been working with and asked if she’d also like to grow some lettuce. She poked some holes and dropped in the seeds and I encourage her to find a few sticks to mark where she had put the seeds in. This continued with the baby kale, at which point my eight-year-old son walked over with a curious look on his face.
“What’s she doing?” he asked.
“She’s planting her own garden.”
“Can I do that too?”
So we cleared out a spot the same size right next to hers and he began to plant.
The next day my daughter picked out some garden decorations and we started talking about how they could use all sorts of things to spruce up their spaces, like rocks, sticks, or ribbons.
Here’s the thing. If I had said to my children while we were inside eating our snack, “Hey kids, wanna go down the garden and help me plant some peas?” the answer would have most likely included eye rolls or a request to watch TV. Instead, we simply went down the garden and told them they could come with us or ride their bikes. Curiosity got the better of them and they slowly appeared next to us. One thing led to another, and suddenly they each had their own garden.
There’s plenty of research to explain this phenomenon, but here’s why I think it worked:
It was self-directed. We didn’t try to push the kids to help in the garden to create their own garden, they made the choice themselves and were more motivated as a result.
It was inquiry-based. Kids are going to be most drawn to things about which they are curious. My daughter simply wondered what would happen if she dropped a pile of dried peas in the dirt.
We didn’t correct them. The look on children’s faces when they are corrected is one of defeat; sometimes its necessary but in this case we could avoid it because, really, who cares if the pea is perfectly spaced in the kids’ garden? Kids need more things that are under their control and we were happy to give this corner to them.
They were given choice. We didn’t swoop in and say, “here, plant this lettuce” or “you don’t like kale, why would you want to plant it?” We showed them the available seeds and let them choose what they wanted to plant. Choice gives kids the freedom to make their own decisions when so many decisions in their life are made for them.
We are looking forward to watching the children interact with their garden spaces over the next few months and are going to do our best to resist telling them what they should do with their spaces. They might have to deal with natural consequences (like not watering) or they might reap the rewards of their efforts with a daily dose of snacking peas.
Either way, they will learn something and it will be entirely their own.