Gardening should be child’s play

Digging and seeding and watering in the garden is hard work, right? But look at it another way – through a child’s eyes – and it’s play. Digging is piling earth on toy trucks and moving it from place to place. Seeding goes along with getting on hands and knees to examine all the tiny things in the soil. And watering … well, what kid doesn’t like splashing around?

Making gardening fun is the key to getting kids interested in growing things, says Toronto author Steven Biggs. His new book, Grow Gardeners, Kid-Tested Gardening With Children, shows big people how to do that. He should know – he’s dad to three lively kids: Emma, 10, Quinn, 8, and Keaton, 5.

This isn’t another garden how-to book, though. Steve enlisted his daughter, Emma, as co-author and illustrator to make sure fun stuff was the focus.

“The critical part is to make kids comfortable in the garden,” Biggs says. “Loving the outdoors is the foundation for gardening.”

That could be a bit tough for city-bred children, who see mom and dad tapping keyboards and checking screens much of the time. The little ones tend to do what they see us do.

To help desk-bound parents learn to see the natural world from a child’s point of view, Steven and Emma divided their book into four sections: Play, Explore, Collect and Grow.

Emma Biggs, co-author of a new gardening book with her dad, shows what her earthworms can do. PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade
Emma Biggs, co-author of a new gardening book with her dad, shows what her earthworms can do.
PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade


You don’t need fancy toys for kids to play outdoors. Sticks, leaves, sand and stones are all free for the taking. Even finding the right ones is part of the fun. Sticks can make boundaries for all kinds of pretend places. Stones can be coins, and leaves can be paper money.

Water, of course, is one of the greatest toys ever created. In one of her “Emma says” tips dotted throughout the book, Emma writes, “Playing with the hose is, I think, one of my favourite things outside … You can make so many cool things when you’re allowed to use the hose: We dig in the dirt, we make a mud pie, we make rivers, we make dams.”


This comes naturally to kids, Steven says. Good places to look in the garden are under rocks, up a tree (lucky you, if you have one that kids can climb) and down on the ground. Emma loves to find out facts by exploring, she told us in a talk she and Steven gave to a group of parents and kids.

“There are millions of bacteria in a handful of soil,” she told the group enthusiastically. In the book, she also advises looking farther afield – Allan Gardens, for example. “Dad takes us to places so we can discover new things. We can’t discover everything in our backyard.”


Yes, kids can collect toy cars, glittery rainbow ponies or princesses from movies made by those mouse people. But why not simply encourage them to find cool things to collect in nature? (Gardens are a form of nature too, you know.)

All you need are sharp eyes, a collecting basket, a thick book to press flowers and leaves, an album and maybe a picture frame. Let your children go after whatever interests them (within reason). Steven suggests feathers, bugs and seeds. Keaton liked to collect snails, and, says Emma in the book, “He once kissed a giant slug.”


It’s just a short step, literally, from digging in the dirt and collecting seeds to planting fun stuff like beans and sunflowers. Playing with earthworms leads to understanding soil and where it comes from. Emma had a rapt audience when she passed around earthworms and their poo (worm castings) at the talk I attended.

All this natural stuff isn’t for squeamish parents, Steven writes:

“If you don’t like mud and messiness, get over it.”

The passion for nature and gardens has a lifelong impact, he says. “Understanding gardens, nature, life cycles and food is an important thing, especially now when people are concerned about food safety. It opens the eyes of consumers to the reality of food production.”

Grow Gardeners is available at A companion book by Biggs, No Guff Vegetable Gardening, is available from


Mary Fran McQuade is a local freelance writer specializing in garden and lifestyle writing

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