Being a parent is a challenge in many ways. Finding wholesome, fun, and inexpensive activities that parents and kids can enjoy is one challenge; as is teaching children patience and how to be responsible. One easy solution to all of these challenges is found just outside your door -- in the garden. Gardening offers the opportunity for kids to get outdoors, dig in the dirt, learn new skills, use tools, and, in general, investigate the world. There are a few guidelines for gardening with kids that will give everyone a better chance to enjoy the experience.

Tip No. 1 - Give your children a small area of the garden that is exclusively their own. If your yard has a formal landscape, provide them with one or more large pots on your patio that can be theirs alone. Ownership of an area can give a real sense of pride. Learning that there are boundaries or borders to what is theirs and what belongs to other people is infinitely valuable.

Tip No. 2 - Dress appropriately for the garden. Sunblock and a hat might be part of what you wear. Discuss ahead of time the fact that garden clothes are different from school or good clothes. It should be ok to get garden clothes and shoes wet, dirty, even stained. Plan together what should be done with wet, muddy shoes before entering the house.

Tip No. 3 - Let the child decide what will go in their garden. Do they want to plant sunflowers that can grow taller than they are, plus grow yummy seeds to eat or feed the birds? How about feeding the family? Carrots, radishes, and perhaps snap beans are fun, and good to plant in the spring garden. If your child likes cherry tomatoes or sweet red peppers, as many do, it is not too late to plant them as well. At this time of year, cherry tomatoes and peppers are best from sets, already started plants, available at your local nursery. The rest can be grown from seed. Remember that children's taste buds are much more sensitive to flavors than adults' -- buy the mildest radish seed you can find. When buying seed, get the shortest, quickest maturing carrot you can for children (and Tucson soils); the 'Half-long' or 'Thumbellina' types are good. Note that the Pima County Cooperative Extension has a free publication on the correct time to plant different vegetables in Tucson (626-5161).

If you child isn't turned on by vegetables, try some herbs. Point out that pizza uses oregano, basil, and rosemary. Other simple herb tricks include a sprig of mint to perk up iced tea, while dill does great things for a tuna fish sandwich or steamed corn kernels. Many children get a real kick out of helping feed the family. Don't forget to thank them for their contribution.

If you have never done much gardening yourself, visit the library with your children. There are numerous great kids books on gardening, some for every age level and ability. Find a book or two that they like -- then explore together. The library also has a number of books on outdoorsy crafts to make, using some garden products. Using the library with your child gives them a chance to see that even grown-ups need help sometimes, a useful lesson for later in life.

Tip No. 4 - Link the gardening experience to the rest of the child's world. Plants start life as a seed then grow and mature, just like they are going to do. On a more scholastic note, "if it can't be grown, it must be mined." The cotton clothing your child is wearing started out as a seed. Your house might be framed with wood from a tree farm, and the nails to hold it together were mined. The rubber band that holds this paper is from the sap of a rubber tree. Where else can your child find plant products in daily life?

A sense of history is nice too. Before supermarkets, everyone had to grow their own food. Your child is doing something their great-great-grandmother or -father did when they were the age your child is now.

Tip No. 5 - Relax and enjoy the experience. Generally, the younger the child, the shorter the attention span. Youngsters aged 4, 5, and 6 are like hummingbirds; they flit from thing to thing, they like sweets, their bladders are small, and big words may be incomprehensible. Ten minutes is a vast amount of time, and an hour an eon. Ten minutes in the garden may be enough the first time.

Try to not make anything an "issue." If the child forgets to water and their plants die, well that's a lesson too. Life is fragile. Better a plant killed through neglect than a puppy. Think positive -- they did keep the plant alive for 5 whole weeks. They will do better next time. Yes, plants can get pricey, but they are cheaper than feeding a family of four at a fast food place.

The positive benefits of gardening with kids are numerous. Exercise is important in this age of overweight kids. Working with their hands at a variety of new skills increases a child's manual dexterity. A chance at sanctioned play in the dirt is always great for kids (of all ages). Gardening can become a lifelong habit that can bring years of positive self-esteem and enjoyment.

Jacqueline A. Soule is a botanist and the director of Tierra del Sol Institute, offering classes on Tucson gardening, plants, and on-site landscape consulting. For more information call 292-0504.

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