Five Ideas to Encourage the Reluctant Junior Gardener

May 10th, 2011 by Dionna | 21 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Carnival of Natural Parenting, Children, Eclectic Learning, Ecological Responsibility and Love of Nature, natural parenting, Preschoolers, Toddlers

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Welcome to the May Carnival of Natural Parenting: Growing in the Outdoors

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared how they encourage their children to connect with nature and dig in the dirt. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Kieran has a clear disdain for dirt. It is partially my fault – I’m a neat freak by nature, and I’ve rubbed off on both Tom and Kieran. While this has been great in some ways – no food smeared on the walls, very little mud tracked on the floor – I also think Kieran will miss out on some fun childhood experiences if he always refuses to get dirty.

So I have to encourage him to make a mess.

It sounds almost heretical coming out of a mama’s mouth, doesn’t it? But it’s what I have to do to help Kieran discover the baser side of a preschooler’s existence. If you find yourself in the same boat, here are five ways to gently encourage your little one’s exploration of the dirt.

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  1. Let Them Help: Do you have work in the yard to do? Ask your little one to lend a hand. It’s so funny that if I ask Kieran to go pick up his toys in the yard, he often hems and haws. But if Tom asks Kieran to help him dig out a rogue bush from the side of the house, Kieran will be out there for over an hour, handing Tom tools, holding back branches, and doing anything and everything asked of him.
    Toddlers and preschoolers love to help out, so the next time you have trees to trim, weeds to pull, or seeds to plant, give your little one a tool of his own. Preschoolers especially love to use grown-up tools – why else would we have plastic lawnmowers, play kitchens, and the like? Amazon sells a variety of functional gardening tool sets for little ones – but you don’t need kid sized tools if you have a few adult tools that you don’t mind sharing. Take time to explain what the tools are for and how to use them safely. You’ll be making a real connection with your child and encouraging them to develop a love for the dirt.
  2. Make it Interesting: Don’t just send your little one out into the backyard and expect them to start digging in the dirt, help create excitement. Plant flowers to attract butterflies. Start seedlings that will turn into a pizza garden. Read 10 Unique Gardening Activities for more ideas that kids will enjoy. This year Tom and Kieran started a little playhouse built using sticks that they cut down from our magnolia tree. Eventually we’ll plant sunflowers and/or peas to grow up the sticks; Kieran cannot wait to play in his living playhouse.
    If planting isn’t your thing, think of other kid-friendly activities that will make getting out in the dirt enjoyable for your child. Does she love to examine the plants and trees in your neighborhood? Check out a book on local flora and fauna and identify what’s growing in your yard. Would she rather spend time watching the bugs? Find some fun books on insect life and turn going outside into an unschooling opportunity.
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  4. Invite Friends: What Kieran is hesitant to do alone (or with a parent), he will do much more willingly if he has a friend there to join him. Invite some friends over who aren’t reluctant to get dirty, and send them outside with instructions to dig, tunnel, build, and have fun.
  5. Get Some Props: You don’t have to splurge on a kid’s gardening set to lure your little one outside, but a few odds and ends brought outside for special play might help. Kieran’s content to dig with spoons, to cut twigs and plants with butter knives, and to sort his treasures into mixing bowls.
    And it’s not always my kitchen utensils that he uses in outdoor play, sometimes he actually takes his own toys. His favorites are trucks – he has a set of construction trucks that is perfect for playing in the dirt. Childhood 101 has a great list of ideas for taking “inside” toys outdoors. If you don’t love the idea of having your kitchenware in the dirt, scour thrift stores and garage sales for dedicated outdoor toys.
  6. Respect Their Need for Clean: If your little one is uncomfortable with dirt under his fingernails, try not to roll your eyes when he runs inside to wash them (for the fifth time). Remember – learning to get dirty is a process. Help him get involved in the process, and he might forget about the dirt. A few things that help Kieran relax around the grime are special “get dirty” clothes, having a damp towel outside for quick clean-up, and hand washing when requested. I also try to keep his nails short, so there is less dirt to dig out.

What tips do you have for helping kids get outside and in the dirt?

***Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama

Visit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Get Out!Momma Jorje gives reasons she doesn’t think she gets outside enough and asks for your suggestions on making time for the outdoors.
  • How Does Your Garden Grow?The ArtsyMama shares her love of nature photography.
  • We Go Outside — Amy at Peace 4 Parents describes her family’s simple, experiential approach to encouraging appreciation of nature.
  • My Not-So-Green Thumb — Wolfmother confesses to her lack of gardening skills but expresses hope in learning alongside her son at Fabulous Mama Chronicles.
  • Enjoying Outdoors — Isil at Smiling like Sunshine describes how her children enjoy the nature.
  • Five Ideas to Encourage the Reluctant Junior Gardener — For the rare little ones who don’t like to get their hands dirty, Dionna at Code Name: Mama offers tips for encouraging an early love of dirt (despite the mess).
  • Connecting to NatureMamapoekie shares how growing your own vegetable patch connects your child to nature and urges them to not take anything for granted.
  • The Farmer’s Market Classroom — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction shares how the Farmer’s Market has become her son’s classroom.
  • Seeds — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment‘s hubby Ken shares his perspective on why gardening with their kiddos is so important . . . and enjoyable!
  • Toddlers in the Garden — Laura at A Pug in the Kitchen shares her excitement as she continues to introduce her toddler and new baby to the joys of fresh veggies, straight from the garden.
  • Nature’s Weave — MJ at Wander Wonder Discover explains how nature weaves its way into our lives naturally, magnetically, experientially, and spiritually.
  • Becoming Green — Kristina at Hey Red celebrates and nurtures her daughter’s blossoming love of the outdoors.
  • Little Gardener — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis looks forward to introducing her baby girl to gardening and exploring home grown foods for the first time.
  • Cultivating Abundance — You can never be poor if you have a garden! Lucy at Dreaming Aloud reflects on what she cultivates in her garden . . . and finds it’s a lot more than seeds!
  • Growing in the Outdoors: Plants and People — Luschka at Diary of a First Child reflects on how she is growing while teaching her daughter to appreciate nature, the origins of food, and the many benefits of eating home-grown.
  • How Not to Grow — Anna at Wild Parenting discusses why growing vegetables fills her with fear.
  • Growing in the Outdoors — Lily at Witch Mom Blog talks about how connecting to the natural world is a matter of theology for her family and the ways that they do it.
  • A Garden Made of Straw — Kelly at Becoming Crunchy shares tips on making a straw bale garden.
  • The Tradition of Gardening — Carrie at Love Notes Mama reflects on the gifts that come with the tradition of gardening.
  • Gardening Smells Like Home — Bethy at Bounce Me to the Moon hopes that her son will associate home grown food and lovely flowers with home.
  • The New Normal — Patti at Jazzy Mama writes about how she hopes that growing vegetables in a big city will become totally normal for her children’s generation.
  • Outside, With You — Amy at Anktangle writes a letter to her son, a snapshot of a moment in the garden together.
  • Farmer Boy — Abbie at Farmer’s Daughter shares how her son Joshua helps to grow and raise their family’s food.
  • Growing Kids in the Garden — Lisa at Granola Catholic shares easy ways to get your kids involved in the garden.
  • Growing Food Without a Garden — Don’t have a garden? “You can still grow food!” says Mrs Green of Little Green Blog. Whatever the size of your plot, she shows you how.
  • Growing Things — Liz at Garden Variety Mama shares her reasons for gardening with her kids, even though she has no idea what she’s doing.
  • MomentsUK Mummy Blogger explains how the great outdoors provides a backdrop for her family to reconnect.
  • Condo Kid Turns Composter and Plastic Police — Jessica from Cloth Diapering Mama has discovered that her young son is a true earth lover despite living in a condo with no land to call their own.
  • Gardening with Baby — Sheila at A Gift Universe shows us how her garden and her son are growing.
  • Why to Choose Your Local Farmer’s MarketNaturally Nena shares why she believes it’s important to teach our children the value of local farmers.
  • Unfolding into Nature — At Crunchy-Chewy Mama, Jessica Claire shares her desire to cultivate a reverence for nature through gardening, buying local food, and just looking out the window.
  • Urban Gardening With Kids — Lauren at Hobo Mama shares her strategies for city gardening with little helpers — without a yard but with a whole lot of enthusiasm.
  • Mama Doesn’t Garden — Laura at Our Messy Messy Life is glad her husband is there to instill the joys of gardening in their children, while all she has to do is sit back and eat homegrown tomato sandwiches.
  • Why We Make this Organic Garden Grow — Brenna at Almost All The Truth shares her reasons for gardening with her three small children.
  • 5 Ways to Help Your Baby Develop a Love of the Natural World — Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama believes it’s never too early to foster a love of the natural world in your little one.
  • April Showers Bring May PRODUCE — Erika at NaMammaSte discusses her plans for raising a little gardener.
  • Growing Outside — Seonaid at The Practical Dilettante discovers how to get her kids outside after weeks of spring rain.
  • Eating Healthier — Chante at My Natural Motherhood Journey talks about how she learns to eat healthier and encourages her children to do the same.
  • The Beauty of Earth and Heavens — Inspired by Charlotte Mason, Erica at ChildOrganics discovers nature in her own front yard.
  • Seeing the Garden Through the Weeds — Amanda at Let’s Take the Metro talks about the challenges of gardening with two small children.
  • Creating a Living Playhouse: Our Bean Teepee! — Kristin at Intrepid Murmurings shares how her family creates a living playhouse “bean teepee” and includes tips of how to involve kids in gardening projects.
  • Grooming a Tree-Hugger: Introducing the Outdoors — Ana at Pandamoly shares some of her planned strategies for making this spring and summer memorable and productive for her pre-toddler in the Outdoors.
  • Sowing Seeds of Life and Love — Suzannah at ShoutLaughLove celebrates the simple joys of baby chicks, community gardening, and a semi-charmed country life.
  • Experiencing Nature and Growing Plants Outdoors Without a Garden — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares some of her favorite ways her family discovered to fully experience nature wherever they lived.
  • Garden Day — Melissa at The New Mommy Files is thankful to be part of community of families, some of whom can even garden!
  • Teaching Garden Ettiquette to the Locusts — Tashmica from Mother Flippin’ (guest posting at Natural Parents Network) allows her children to ravage her garden every year in the hopes of teaching them a greater lesson about how to treat the world.
  • Why I Play with Worms. — Megan of Megadoula, Megamom and Megatired shares why growing a garden and raising her children go hand in hand.

21 Responses to:
"Five Ideas to Encourage the Reluctant Junior Gardener"

  1. MJ

    I had to smile about the neat freakness. My hubs is the same way :). This post is wonderful, so simple, so doable, and all the while respecting the children :).

  2. Melissa @ The New Mommy Files   vibreantwanderer

    What great suggestions! Thanks, Dionna! My daughter definitely does not mind getting dirty. Sand is her favorite snack food, but there is certainly a lot more I could do to encourage her to dig in the dirt. Much to think about!

  3. Lauren @ Hobo Mama   Hobo_Mama

    I’m there with you. I’m so anti-dirt and -mess, and I try not to let that rub off on Mikko — but, of course, it does. He can see that I get freaked out when there’s a spill or other accident. I’m sure some of it is his own choice and maybe genetic, because he’s always been hesitant to finger paint or get as messy as the other kids at his preschool, and I’ve heard tell that I was always reluctant to sit in a sandbox as a baby and would squat instead and brush my hands off the whole time.

    I like your ideas, because I’m trying to look for ways to let him get messy in a controlled way, like painting at the table with a brush and washable paints. And I’m very thankful for his preschool, since they have sensory activities all the time like scooping up dried rice and beans or mixing food coloring with shaving cream — and the teachers do the clean-up for us. ;) I can handle the extra laundry as long as I don’t have to clean that out of my carpet, lol.

    And when we’re outdoors and I find he’s getting filthy, I try to just bite my tongue and tell myself the same thing — maybe we’ll have some clean-up to do when we get inside, but the bulk of the mess will stay outdoors.

  4. Kelly   BecomingCrunchy

    Awesome ideas Dionna! I now feel fortunate to have been forewarned – I’ll have to watch myself not to freak out about dirt. :) (not that I would call myself a neat freak…though I think my husband wishes I was more of one lol).

    I’ll be saving this post for when we reach toddlerhood…it’s coming all too soon!

  5. My mother in law said my husband HATED having his hands dirty as a kid. He would run outside to play in the leaves and then freak out and wash his hands and refuse to touch them again. The good news is he out grew it and now gardens and gets very dirty hands with no complaint. Great ideas and awesome post as always. Yay for dirt!!!

  6. Isil   smilinglikesuns

    My DD didn’t enjoy getting dirty, luckily she grew out of it.
    I agree that you have to respect ther choices and let them discover with some encouragement. Great post for the carnival!

  7. That is an interesting challenge you have there. I’m a bit of an organization freak. (So it drives me nuts to have the little parts of the sorting ball NOT with the ball, but she likes to pretend to drink from them and carries them all over the house.) But dirt… I don’t have a problem with dirt. Heck, I’d rather DIRT than food mess, honestly! I hate sticky stuff!

  8. I’m laughing because I remember my younger sister going inside after playing in the garden and only washing one hand…because she hadn’t gotten the other one dirty, LOL. Kids are funny. These are some great tips here! :)

  9. Amy   anktangle

    I love these ideas! I am also squeamish when it comes to messes & dirt, so now I’ll know to pay attention to how that might affect Daniel. He doesn’t seem to mind being dirty yet (and even eating dirt), so I guess we’ll see! I particularly like the idea of having ok-to-get-messy clothes, because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s making more work for myself (laundry) later. I also really love the idea of a living & growing playhouse with vegetable plant walls–can’t wait to try that out someday!

  10. Amy   Peace4Parents

    Dionna, I love your neat-freakness. :) I’ve grown through that myself! lol I suppose 4 kids can do that to some people.

    Thank you for sharing simple ways to encourage children to experience nature – very helpful pointers. I always notice that the kids are more likely to get in the dirt together – especially running through mud puddles. :)

  11. Charise@I Thought I Knew Mama   ithoughtiknewma

    I so understand where you are coming from. I literally have to talk myself down and force myself to relax as I watch Baby make messes. It’s getting easier to relax about it though the more I practice letting it go. :-)

  12. Alicia C.   amccrenshaw

    I’m lining the perimeter of our garden with interesting rocks we find on our walks. I ask my toddler to help me by washing the rocks. I give him an old toothbrush and a bucket of water. He goes nuts!

  13. Nena   NaturallyNena

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this post! My son is the worst for informing me he has “yucky hands” and then refuses to have any fun! These ideas are going to be so helpful!

  14. Deb @ Living Montessori Now   DebChitwood

    Wonderful ideas, Dionna! I love the Montessori principle of providing real, child-sized tools. I’ve found that often makes a real difference in creating interest and pride in work for preschoolers.

  15. The ArtsyMama   The_ArtsyMama

    I hope that Little Man will like getting in the dirt. At his first birthday photoshoot, he was not too excited about the cake smash. But he liked to leave his toys everywhere.

    These are great ideas though. They might help the not so junior gardener in me to get outside and dig as well.


  16. so sweet. my babes revel in the dirt so much i have a hard time getting those nails clean! great ideas here. thanks for being a lovely hostess.

  17. Erica @ ChildOrganics   ChildOrganics

    We have no problem making messes here, we do it over and over again everyday! In fact, that feels like all we do on some days. ;-) We went to a friends house the other week, she wanted to make a sand box, but they were out of sand. She bought a bag of potting soil instead, ha! You should have seen the kids after playing in a pile of black potting soil!! They loved it!

  18. Jessica | Cloth Diapering Mama   clothmamajess

    I love that you’re a self proclaimed neat freak…lol!!! So is my mom…she also has go outside and get dirty clothes, painting clothes…even special shoes to go out to the trash or compost…but it all works out because the inside of the house will look great ;)

    Totally agree that you need to make the “helping” exciting…today I let Nathan help me chop zucchini…major fun…helping clean up toys or put away clothes…not so fun!

  19. Growing up I didn’t like getting dirty either and would run into the house to wash my hands every five minutes when playing in the sandbox. Now my son doesn’t like anything on his hands and will refuse to touch anything squishy himself. He might end up like me with an aversion to dirt which means I will probably have to coax him into messy play (and get involved myself too!). I’ll definitely have to put your suggestion to good use!

  20. Great tips!

    Luckily for two of my kids I am not a neat freak. I don’t mind (too much anyway) when they dig in the dirt and make mud with the hose. My middle child has Sensory Processing Disorder. He has a very difficult time with touching most messy things. He can do some dirt, but he is definitely the child that is washing his hands often. I have learned to bring out towels for him, so that he can feel comfortable to explore, but know that he will be able to wipe any time too.

  21. Kristina @ Hey Red   heytherered

    Love this post! And really love the tips, especially the living playhouse (think we’ll have to design one for next year!) and the reminder to respect the hand washing. As much as Freyja loves-loves-loves to be outside, it’s been an ongoing process to keep her calm when she gets muddy. We use special “backyard pants” and I’ve taught her to wipe her hands on her pants as a stop-gap until it’s time to go in and wash up.

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