How to involve children in ethical living - 1

How to involve children in ethical living

From spotting a blue tit or robin in the garden to hauling up a bumper crop of carrots, the rewards of living in harmony with nature are priceless.

Harnessing your children’s curiosity in the garden will help them to develop skills in caring for and protecting the environment, and will encourage them to forge good eating habits early on.

Children barely need encouragement in discovering the joys of the outside world. They might need a little steer in the right direction from time to time (usually when they’re going through the phase of pulling everything out of the ground and picking the heads off flowers) but this phase will pass quickly with positive guidance.

The easiest way to encourage them is to give them specific responsibilities so they feel a part of the process. In turn they’ll learn to respect and love the task far better than if they’re forced to watch grown ups do it without being able to have a go themselves.

Add to that the opportunity to get covered in mud, play with some worms and feed the compost heap and before long you’ll have some nifty little helpers in the garden.

Getting started

If you already have a vegetable plot, why not entrust them with a few jobs? Get them to spot and harvest ripe strawberries or send them into the row of runner beans where they can pick them from hard-to-reach places on the inside.

You could also clear a small section of the plot and let them grow a few crops for themselves. Arm them with their own fork and trowel set, a watering can and some seeds and they’ll relish the responsibility of nurturing a plant they’ve grown from scratch.

Some crops are more fun to grow than others. Children will lose interest if given Brussels sprouts and parsnips to care for (which mature in nine and ten months respectively), but will be quickly rewarded with fast-growing veg such as beetroot and radish, which are ready in a matter of weeks.

Getting a good crop of sweetcorn, peppers and aubergines is tricky enough for the seasoned grower, so they’re definitely not recommended for the young beginner to cultivate.

Instead, why not challenge them to a sunflower growing competition? The plants should eventually grow taller than your children, which will both fascinate them and provide a goal for them to work towards.

Themed gardens

It’s a good idea to encourage children to think about where their food comes from. They may know that peas grow in a pod, but what about the ingredients on a pizza, or in spaghetti bolognaise?

Tell them that you’ll make them their favourite dish if they help you to grow the ingredients, then make them some chips from potatoes or whip up a delicious smoothie using strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

Natural pest control

Children love to learn about wildlife so introduce them to ladybirds and frogs or encourage hedgehogs on to your plot by making your little ones responsible for leaving food out for them.

These creatures are nature’s own method of pest control; ladybirds and their larvae feast on aphids, and frogs and hedgehogs will happily devour all your slugs.

Bumblebees are fantastic pollinators of soft fruit, peas, beans and squash flowers and should be welcomed – sit with your children and watch the bees buzz between vegetable blooms, then when the fruit appears, explain to your child how the bees you saw together were instrumental in getting that fruit.

Depending on how old you children are, you may or may not want to consider having a pond on your plot.

Very young children and water certainly don’t mix, and a pond should only be an option if they’re old enough to know the dangers of one or if you can fence it off safely.

They are a great feature to have in the organic wildlife garden however, as they provide a habitat for frogs, newts, water snails, pond skaters and dragonflies, and the insects it attracts may even entice a bat onto your plot at dusk.

Birds are also a delight in the garden. Simply putting up a few feeders during winter will encourage them to visit, and installing a nest box or two will entice blue tits, great tits, blackbirds and robins to breed there in the spring.

Why not get your children to spot migrant birds, such as swallows and swifts returning in May and encourage them to identify sounds, such as the call of the cuckoo or the tap of the woodpecker?

Get them set for Halloween by starting off pumpkins that they can grow themselves.

Sow seeds under cover in individual biodegradable coir pots in May. In June, when all risk of frost has passed and the young plants have at least four ‘true’ leaves, harden them off. This is done by placing them outside during the day for a week before leaving them out at night for a few days.

When planting out, ensure your little helpers watch you planting the first one and then let them plant the rest. Dig a hole 1m wide and ½m deep and fill with rich organic matter such as home grown compost.

Cover with soil and dig a small planting hole and place the seedling in its coir pot into it, firming gently. Water well.

Attract bees and butterflies

Dig over a patch of soil and let your children scatter wild flower seeds over it before raking it over and watering gently with a watering can with a rose attached. As the flowers emerge, encourage the children to identify the various types and then observe the different insects that visit them.

Harvest sunflower seeds

Once the plants’ flowers have died down, the heads should be full of seeds. Cut the seeds off half of the plants and give them to your children to scrape out and dry before adding to the bird feeder.

Leave the rest of the flower heads as they are, many birds prefer to eat the seeds directly from there and the stalks provide shelter for over-wintering ladybirds and lacewings.

Mix compost

Children love getting dirty so give them a small shovel and teach them the importance of aerating the heap to help it decompose quicker. Encourage your children to monitor the break down process and remind them that frogs can be found – they’ll love adding scraps to it and helping to feed the soil.

Sow radish, beetroot and lettuce

Sow seeds in shallow drills or let your children scatter them over a well-prepared soil. After seedlings emerge and the first ‘true’ leaves appear, thin them so the strongest ones remain roughly 2.5cm apart.

Each beetroot seed grows up to three seedlings, so remove two of them. Ensure your children keep them well watered during dry spells, and let them be the first to eat them when they’re ready to harvest.

It’s not too late to buy plug plants of courgettes. Water the plugs thoroughly before planting out.

Prepare the soil by digging it over and adding plenty of organic matter, then encourage your children to get their hands dirty by placing them in the soil themselves.

They can dig planting holes with small trowels and firm the soil back around the plants with their knuckles. Don’t let them forget to water the plants well after they’ve been planted.

Harvest potatoes

The first scratch around the base of the haulms (the leaves and stalk above ground) to reveal tender new potatoes is exciting enough for grown up growers. Let your children hunt for the ‘buried treasure’. At home they can wash the spuds before you serve them up in a delicious meal.

Take them fruit picking

You may be lucky enough to have the berries growing in your plot or garden, but there will be plenty in the hedgerows. Get them to help you make a blackberry pie or crumble, or make a jam, which they can spread on their toast.