Young Hands in the Dirt


sharing the garden’s pleasures with kids

By Joshua Burman Thayer
Illustrations by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

As a wilderness camp counselor and later as a naturalist with the San Francisco Unified School District, I had the experience of getting paid to interact with kids in nature. Leading trips around the dunes of Fort Funston and the wild Lost Coast, I repeatedly saw the innate curiosity that children hold for wild lands.

More recently, in managing the People’s Garden in downtown San Francisco, I found children willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. When kids are given tasks they can accomplish, they quickly become confident in their powers to participate in ongoing garden projects. The following activities are likely to motivate kids and feed their desire to get their hands into the dirt.


Kids love to watch their crops sprout from the ground. They will check often and are so proud when the plants begin to crown.

May and June are good times for planting peas, beans, and corn. Peas and beans are vigorous and hearty, and can thrive year-round. Since they are nitrogen-fixing plants, they help condition the soil as nitrogen adheres to their root nodules. Legumes can keep kids interested in gardening year round: Fava beans are planted in winter, sugar snap peas in spring, pole and bush beans in summer, and scarlet runner beans in the fall.

Corn is a crop that is exciting to watch grow. It does well when sown directly in the ground, and kids will be looking forward to the harvest later in the summer.



When children are placing seeds directly into the earth, have them use spacing sticks. Cut the sticks to the proper spacing between plants for each crop and have the kids paint each stick with the crop name and a picture of the plant that will sprout from the seed. While they are at it, they can paint the wooden sides of the raised beds to claim the food zone for their own.

In addition to measuring distance between seeds, youngsters can learn how to use the rule of “a digit deep.” This means planting the seed to the depth of a pointer finger’s fingertip segment. These techniques for consistent depth and spacing bring more order to the garden and also promote crop success.


strawbsThe following crops are simple and safe for children to help harvest:

Root Crops: Carrots, radishes, and beets push out of the soil to expose their root crowns when they’re ready for harvest. Kids can yank the whole plant out of the ground by holding the plant stem at its base. It’s also good to instruct children to lift using the muscles in their legs, a habit that will prevent back injuries later in life.

Berries: Kids love berries. If you have the space, I recommend a blueberry, raspberry, or currant patch in a light-shade area. Rest assured, the children will soon begin to monitor these bushes and pilfer the ripe berries.

Strawberry Zones:
Try planting strawberries in the basins of your fruit trees. This way the children can nibble the berries each time they visit the fruit trees to check on the swelling fruits. There’s no reason to designate raised-bed real estate for strawberries.




Children’s curiosity is potent. An area that supports birds and pollinators creates a daily draw to the garden. I recommend placing a habitat zone toward the back of the garden so that children are drawn through the food production area to explore the wilds of the backyard, perhaps to check on the new chrysalis they found there.

Josh’s recommended plants for drought tolerant habitat area:

Native sage: Salvia clevelandii
Mexican marigold: Tagetes lemmonii
Native bush anemone: Carpenteria californica
Native chaparral currant: Ribes malvaceum



Raising chickens for eggs is a perfect way for children to observe and learn about the ways of animals. The birds deposit valuable manure in their hay bedding, which kids can rake out weekly and re-lay. A second and much more fun task is going out each morning to collect eggs from the coop. We designed our coop with a lid that lifts above the three laying boxes so we can harvest the eggs without going inside the coop.♦


Permaculture designer and educator Joshua Burman Thayer is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay. In his monthly Gardener’s Notebook feature in Edible East Bay’s free e-newsletter, he offers lots more advice on how to implement gardening ideas like this one. Sign up for the newsletter here. Josh has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find him and his work at, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.

Edible East Bay publisher and editor Cheryl Angelina Koehler also does page design and illustration. See some examples of her illustration work here.