My twins and I have spent a lot of the last week or so working and playing in the garden: planting seeds and annuals, adding compost to the soil, mulching, making glorious mudheaps with the garden hose.
What better toddler activity could there be than gardening? Fresh air, freedom, beauty, dirt; the chance to make things grow and begin to divine something about the mystery of life. Given the chance, children respond powerfully and viscerally to the first signs of spring, to the magic of sprouting seeds and blossoming flowers.
You don't need a garden to share this magic with your child. Until recently, we lived in a seventh-story one-bedroom apartment in the frenzied midst of Midtown Manhattan; I'm sorry to say I didn't grow a thing with my kids last year.
Now I know that even if you have no natural light whatsoever, you can get a packet of watercress seeds and sprout them on some damp cotton balls in a dark, cool cupboard. If you have one window that gets decent light, you can try sprouting sunflower seeds or growing radishes or herbs. So what if your plant doesn't grow to maturity: The main delight for kids comes in that first unfurling of the initial shoot, the spreading of the first seed leaves.
If you're lucky enough to have some outdoor space, you can plant things in containers, or if you're really lucky, plant right in the ground. If you want the experience to be rich and satisfying for your child, let go of any Martha Stewart aspirations: Your basic three-year-old, however good-intentioned, will end up mangling the tender sunflower seedlings, drowning the crocuses with the hose, trampling the pansies, and squishing the hostas.
That's OK. (OK, it's not, but try to grit your teeth and accept a measure of gleeful kiddie destruction.) The most important thing for your child to get out of preschool-age gardening is a sense of joyful connection to the natural world, and an incipient sense of how human activity affects nature. If you actually grow some pretty flowers or some tasty vegetables, consider it a major bonus.
I haven't yet found any really great fiction books for small kids that center on plants, gardening, and the like (readers, please share any suggestions). But there are a lot of great nonfiction books out there, which help give kids the vocabulary and concepts to make sense of what they're doing when they dig in the garden dirt:
Plant (EYE KNOW) by DK Publishing. This series of preschool books is filled with flaps, cut-outs, and similar gimmicks -- but all in the service of clear, concise, interesting information about the natural world. We've been reading this one out in the backyard in between bouts of gardening; we also got our instructions for growing watercress from here.
The Moonflower by Peter and Jean Loewer. I don't think I've ever actually seen a moonflower, but thanks to this beautiful, lyrical book, we've got moonflower seeds sprouting on our windowsill and hawkmoths have become regular characters in my three-year-olds' play monologues.
From Seed to Sunflower by Dr. Gerald Legg. Less poetic and more pedestrian than the wonder-filled moonflower tome, but this book offers detailed images and descriptions of germination, pollination, and other key concepts.
From Seed to Pumpkin by Wendy Pfeffer. Another solid introduction to how plants grow.
And for ideas about what to grow with your kids, and how, check out these two books:
What Shall I Grow? by Ray Gibson. This Usborne Activities book offers lots of ideas of gardening projects you can do even if you don't have a garden.
Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy. If you have a yard where you can garden, consider trying one of the amazing projects in this wonderful book, like growing a playhouse made of sunflowers or planting a flowery maze.