It’s school holidays for many, however this time there isn’t the same sense of excitement that there usually is. There is a tension and uncertainty that we as a community are all shouldering and our kids are sensing it too. It is how we model ourselves at this time, and the atmosphere we create in our homes, that will teach them more about resiliency, adaptability and flexibility than words can ever say.
Many kids have already been doing their schooling from home for several weeks, and while its usually the kids that get stir crazy when they are home for long periods, this time many parents are feeling it, especially trying to keep younger kids entertained and engaged.
I am a proud Ambassador for Nature Play SA and they have a wealth of inspiration and information for parents on their website with great lists of activities and challenges to get kids outside and active. https://natureplaysa.org.au/families/nature-play-downloads/
So, I have raided all the columns I have written and segments I have filmed for Gardening Australia since I have had kids to find fun, garden or gardening based projects which I have enjoyed with my tribe and collated them here. My kids are now 19, 17, 15 and the twins are 13 so you can see that some of these TV segments are quite old, but these activities are just as relevant and fun.
Fun Garden Projects Inside
Make a miniature garden
Made using a wide plant bowl, potting soil and some small plants. Help your children arrange and plant them and then let them add small figures, rocks, shells, pebbles or anything that takes their fancy. With their imagination they can create a fairy or gnome garden, or tropical or safari landscape, or Jurassic garden full of dinosaurs. You can use succulent cuttings or tubes of indoor plants if the pot will stay inside. If the planter is staying outside succulents are great and don’t mind drying out a bit or you could choose small tubes of outdoor plants which you can buy from the nursery or miniature plants which you can separate like miniature Mondo grass. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/making-mini-gardens/9432886
Make grass heads.
A few years ago, I filmed a segment with my kids making these and to be honest, I had forgotten just how much fun they are to do!? You need some old pantyhose, lawn seed, sphagnum moss, a few rubber bands, and buttons or fabric to decorate their faces. Sprinkle some lawn seed into the toe of the stocking, and then stuff with the moss until it is about as big as an orange. Tie it off tightly with some string or a rubber band, keeping about 15 cm of the stocking hanging as this will act as a wick and draw water up to the seeds. Now create a face with buttons, googly eyes, red felt cut out and sewn on for lips, black felt added for a moustache, a pipe cleaner twisted to make glasses, or anything else you can think of. Fill with water and dunk the seed filled end into the water. Leave the grass end of the head soaking in water for an hour and then turn it over and stand it on a jar where it can sit stably, resting on the lip with the wick in water. Place it on a sunny window sill and be sure to keep the water up to it by making sure the jar is half full so the water will travel up the leftover stocking. Occasionally it may need to be sprayed with some water too. In the coming weeks the grass head will grow ‘hair’ much to the delight of your children! You can even give it a haircut and it will continue to grow. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/gardening-with-kids/9432934
Make a simple topiary frame from coat hangers.
Undo the hanger and secure the hook in a hole in the bottom of a pot. Fill the pot with potting mix and make the coat hanger into a simple shape such as a hoop or heart. You could even try and make an animal such as a chook with a coat hanger frame with chicken wire added. Then you simply choose a suitable plant to grow over the frame. Plant a small leaved ivy or Cissus, or even the wire vine, Muelenbeckia complexa.
Write their name in seeds.
Kids love seeing their name written in a seed tray, foam box, or in the vegetable garden. Varieties to use in the vegetable garden include quick sprouting radishes or mixed loose-leaf lettuces, and you can try cress or mustard if using a seed tray. Write their name with a stick and then carefully sow the seeds along the letters. Cover with dirt, water, and wait as their name grows.
Growing cress in egg shells.
Draw faces on cracked eggs shells and stand them on toilet rolls so that they do not roll. Fill the shells with moist potting soil or compost and sow some quick growing seeds such as cress or mustard. In just a few days these faces will start to grow green hair. Use a sprayer bottle to spray them to keep the mix moist. The hair can be cut and used as a garnish or added to a salad. When you are tired of them you can even plant them out. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/sowing-the-seeds/9439644
Growing carrot tops.
This is a great way to show kids that the food we eat is living. You can grow carrot tops by cutting the top 2cm off a carrot which has signs of a shoot on the top. Sit these on a saucer or shallow dish with a small amount of water in it and place it on a light windowsill. Keep the water up to it and in a couple of days leaves should start to appear on the top. The same can be done with the tops of pineapples.
The sky is the limit here and it all starts with collecting some materials from outside in the garden. A walk along the footpath or to the local park will give you an amazing variety of gum nuts, cones, pods, leaves, sticks, bark and more. You will need some basic craft materials such as wool or string, craft glue and even a low temp glue gun. You can then glue pods and cones together to make interesting creatures, candle sticks, table mats – the possibilities are endless.
My favourite raw materials for making cool creatures include gum nuts, dried banksia heads, jacaranda pods, silky oak seed pods, hakea pods. Craft shops sell googly eyes and pipe cleaners which you can use for eyes, arms and legs, however I prefer to use other small seeds, pods and twigs for these features.
You can also mount these same natural treasures on a piece of board or hard cardboard to make a picture, pattern or mandala (or you can also raid your pantry and use seeds, legumes and even pasta shapes). Dried leaves also make wonderful pictures too.
Make a mobile from two sticks tied together with string to make a cross and use wool, cotton or string to hang nuts and pods of different sizes at different heights. Feathers or interesting dried leaves can also be used for extra interest.
Press fresh flowers between sheets of newspaper in a phone book with a few other heavy books on top. After a few weeks when the flowers are dried, use craft glue to attach them to paper or card to make pictures or gift cards. You can also make pictures out of leaves and bark.
or other ideas on what you could do read Nature Crafts for Aussie Kids and Nature Crafts with Common Plants books by Kate Hubmayer. Follow her social media @Nature crafts for kids or visit her website http://naturecraftsforkids.com/ to buy her books or nature craft kits.
Make rope with natural plant fibres.
This is remarkably easy to do and kids love to learn this practical skill, and it is quite grounding and calming. The end product is flexible and strong and can be woven into baskets, used to tie stakes together in the veggie patch or to tie up cubby poles. Use leaves from native plants like Lomandra and Dianella, or exotics such as Dietes, New Zealand Flax, Cordyline, Kniphofia and even weedy Watsonia (what a great use for a pest plant). If you harvest dead material you can start making rope straight away, or dry out freshly leaves for a couple of weeks. To see a clip on how to make rope visit www.abc.net.au/gardening and search for ‘A wealth of resources’.
Start some sprouts.
Growing your own sprouts in jars is so easy and quick, and they make wonderful tasty and nutritious additions to salads. Try different varieties to work out what your kids like best, but alfalfa and mung beans are a great place to start. While you can get a specially designed sprouting tower, you can also use a medium sized jar with gauze pulled tight on top and held in place with a rubber band. They are sprouted and ready to eat in 3 to 7 days after soaking. Microgreens seeds selection sowed thickly in shallow trays of soil, are also popular and fun to grow, ready for harvest as a ‘cut and come again’ crop in 7 to 21 days.
Growing a bulb on a jar
This lets kids see how a bulb grows below and above the earth. Choose a hyacinth bulb which are readily available in nurseries or garden centers now. These will grow and bloom to produce a beautifully scented flower in late winter and spring. Choose a glass jar with a small enough neck for the bulb to sit on without falling in, or one of the specifically designed bulb vases. Fill the jar with fresh water and then place your bulb on top, so its bottom is about 5mm above the water level. Now, place a paper bag over the top and pop it in a cupboard so that it is in the dark. Keep an eye on the water level and bring it out of the dark in a few weeks when roots have started. Place it in a lighter position and in a few months it will be in flower.
Growing this bulb on the jar allows you to watch the fascinating process of the root system developing and expanding, something that goes on underground and usually out of sight. Then the shoot appears from the bulb and develops into leaves and the stunning flower spike. One trick to keeping the water clean is to place a bit of activated charcoal (used in aquariums) in the bottom of the jar. Most bulb vase kits already come with this.
Make a terrarium
Even if the weather is unpleasant, many of these activities that can be done under cover or inside.
Getting Kids Outside – fun to be had with things to do and make outside
Dirt is good
Kids enjoy planting things, whether it is from seeds, seedlings or plants. Plant a vegetable that they can (and like to) eat, a herb like mint (only in a pot) they can use to make herb tea or even cut up in fruit juice, a lavender to bring in the bees, a native plant to bring in the birds, or a tree which will grow up to give them shade in the future. It is also a great opportunity to show them that each plant needs some ongoing care such as watering, mulching, weeding and feeding.
Don’t forget that just digging a hole in moist earth can turn into hours of fun, and the rise of interest in mud pits and mud kitchens highlights this. Remember for kids, usually the messier and dirtier it is, the more fun it is. Mums and dads, some of you might need to loosen up, and accept a little bit of dirt in your home – as the saying goes “Dirty hands, happy heart!”. Here is an old segment I filmed with my tribe https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/getting-kids-to-garden/9432464
Plant food plants
At a time when some people are concerned about food security and there is a dramatic increase in people wanting to grow their own food, teaching kids how to grow food is an invaluable life skill and quite profound. There is a sense of reassurance and security that comes when you grow your own produce and your kids will pick up on this. One of mine said to me recently “We will be OK mum, won’t we?” as he looked at the produce I had harvested sitting in our kitchen. I responded “Yes mate, because we grow our own food. His realization reassured him in this time of uncertainty.
Wicking bed in a Styrofoam box.
These self-watering vegie beds are quick and easy to make and can be done for little or no cost. (https://gawlerenvironmentcentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Wicking-Bed-in-Foam-Box-updated-25072014.pdf). Then plant it as a salad bowl with quick growing or repeat harvest varieties such as lettuces, rocket and even some radishes.
Growing old boots
Children grow out of clothes and shoes overnight. Take an old pair of shoes and plant them out. You can use seeds or seedling of annuals or small herbs. I like to use succulents as it does not matter if the shoes dry out!? Be sure to make a few holes in the bottom of the boots and always use good quality potting mix. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/gardening-with-kids/9432934
Kids love making succulent planters and this can be done in quirky recycled containers such as old tea pots or mugs for indoors. Containers grown outside must have drainage holes however these are relatively easy to make in crockery with the right drill bit. For older kids, make a hanging basket of mixed succulent varieties or even a succulent picture frame. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/picture-perfect/10638456
The internet offers an amazing variety of ideas for kid craft in the garden ranging from paint terracotta pots to making wire figures such as butterflies and dragon flies from coat hangers adorned with beads.
Bug watching, and creature watching
It is a wonderful thing to have the time to watch the natural world and learn about the bugs and creatures that surround us. A hand held magnifying glass will allow even more exploration and hours of fun and learning.
Just be sure to be careful with the creatures and release them back to their habitat if you have picked any up.
Kicking through autumn leaves is one of the great joys for adults and kids alike. Make piles of them and kick through roadside drifts. If you have plenty you can then make leaf mulch with them.
In our safety conscious public spaces kids are not allowed to climb trees. I think this is a great shame as if we over protect our kids they don’t learn to explore their limits, take challenges and develop resilience.
Branches, prunings, autumn leaves, pine needles are all great cubby building materials. If your little ones need help you can build a basic tee pee frame and they can then cover the structure with leaves and branches. Cubbies provide hours if not days of fun and kids also learn about physics at the same time!
There is often not enough time for imagination and relaxation and yet it is both of these that lead to creativity and well being. Find a comfortable spot and watch the world above us while letting your imagination go wild.
Make mushroom prints
In autumn when the mushrooms are in season you can make mushroom pictures. Be careful to only use edible mushrooms and wear gloves if you are not sure.
Carefully gather the mushrooms trying not to bump tem or disturb the gills. Remove the stem using a sharp knife then place the caps face down on paper and cove with a bowl to stop any breeze blowing the spores away. After 12-14 hours you can take a look and see if your mushroom print has developed. If not keep waiting. The pictures are etheral and will blow away in the wind so take photos if you want to keep them.
You can’t be sure what colour the spores will be so it is fun to try this with different coloured paper and different textures.
Collect natural treasures – treasure hunts
Set your kids a treasure hunt for natural treasures – pebbles, feathers, leaves, seed pods, that the can collect are all accessible for anyone with a garden or park nearby. You can also hunt for things that that can’t be physically collected, encouraging a study of nature – bird sounds, insect homes, cloud formation, creatures and plants. If you have the technology at hand then these can be photographed or recorded.
For still life art, arrange in water bowls, vases or make posies for gifts.
Building Projects / Big Kids projects!
Big kid projects (for your kids… and the big kid in you!)
I will admit that over the years I have often chosen garden projects that I want to make and then tried to make it fun to get my kids involved.
Create a backyard for your kids (or grandies).
Rather than going for the plastic play equipment, why not create a more natural play space. You can get some great ideas from the fact sheet that went with my 2014 show garden ‘Backyard for Kids’ or the fact sheet produced by Nature Play SA. Also here is a link to kid proof plantings https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/kid-proof-plants/9434670
Make a log spiral
Wooden stepping stones are a great easy way to add some interest and excitement to a garden and they can be moved and changed when you or your kids tire of them. They are also great for kids to develop gross motor skills. Use hardwood log cuts and dig them in securely so that they will not topple over when kids run or jump on them. We used redgum cuts to make a log spiral and then I planted one side of the logs with a dwarf Dianella and the other side with mixed jonquil and daffodil bulbs I was given for some seasonal interest. If you have more space and access to wooden slabs you could also make a more complex labyrinth.
Start a vegie garden, herb garden or strawberry bed
This can be in large containers such as wine barrel or in the ground. I am a huge fan of wicking beds which are self-watering vegie beds. I now have 20 of these and literally water them only once every 5-7 days even during the hottest summer spells, compared with nearly daily for my in ground vegies. While I have built them out of low cost recycled or repurposed materials using this method http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s4010599.htm for the latest ones which have been built for more initial investment but should be good to go for the next twenty years, see http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s4632696.htm
Plant an insectary
Plant around your vegetable garden for improved pollination and decreased pest insect problems. Start planting herbs to provide year round flowers (including rosemary, lavenders, thymes and sages) and also be sure to include flowers which are ‘daisies’ (Chamomile, seaside daisy, native daisy and marguerites) and ‘umbels’ (flat leaf parsley, coriander, dill, bronze fennel, angelica, chives, garlic chives and society garlic) as both or these are magnets for beneficial insects. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/enticing-the-insects/9435932
Build a chook house
I am totally biased but I can’t imagine life without our chooks, ducks and geese. They are an absolute delight and chooks value add to our lives by turning our food scarps into eggs and manure! A real win-win! Now for those with a suburban backyard I would leave out the ducks and geese as that really ramps up the mess, but chooks are manageable as long as you have a fox proof pen. Don’t be fooled into thinking there are no foxes in the suburbs because there are, and there is nothing more distressing than losing chooks to them.
Build a compost system
It could be made from hay bales, wooden slats, metal sheets or even fridge panels. There is lots of information on how to do this including this one I made at my place.
Build a leaf mould bay if you have large deciduous trees and get inundated with their leaves when they fall. Leaf mould is a wonderful additive for your soil to help increase the soils water holding capacity for next summer, perfect for use in the veggie patch where you sow seeds and need to stop them from drying out so rapidly. There are several ways to make this however this is a very simple way using star droppers and chicken wire as in this quick compost set up http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s2748773.htm You will fit more leaves in if you chop them up smaller by mowing the leaves first and speed up the process of making leaf mould by incorporating organic fertiliser every 15cm layer, like making a leaf lasagne.
Build a worm farm
This can be in something as simple as Styrofoam boxes (Chooks also love to peck at Styrofoam so don’t do this if your chooks free range), an old bathtub, fridge or freezer. There are lots of great ideas for this on the internet.
Build a frog pond or water feature
You can start with a formed pond, use a pond liner or even use an old bathtub. Just make sure you get the right plants to make it work properly. People often use chemicals or filters to keep their pond water clean, and yet, when you have the right balance of plants, this is not necessary. The water in your pond is like a good tub of yoghurt – a living culture. For all your pond plant queries in SA, contact Tupelo Grove Nursery at Mylor on 08 8388 5456
Make a bat box, bird box or even possum box
Nesting boxes are important for hollow dependent creatures and as it takes 80 to 100 years for hollows to form naturally in old trees, you can give these homeless creatures alternative accommodation. Why would you want bats in your garden? Well we want micro bats as they are amazing garden guardians, cleaning up many of our insect pests and eating up to 1700 mosquitoes per night in the warmer weather. http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s3274534.htm
Build some garden furniture or garden art
They could be as simple as painting some old pots or a plant stand, or as complex as making pebble stepping stones or mosaics. My artist friend Irene Pearce, creator of the Magical Tickle Tank garden showed me how to make concrete chooks https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/concrete-chooks/9540268
Make pebble stepping stones
Start with concrete stepping stones or pavers. Mix waterproof tile adhesive as per instructions with some builder’s sand and an oxide to colour the adhesive. This adhesive mix should be a spreadable yet firm consistency to hold its shape on the paver (just like double whipped cream). Apply approximately 10mm across the paver and push in pebbles of varying size but uniform thickness. The adhesive acts as a glue and grout and should be left to dry for at least 24 hours. Once dry, set these pavers as stepping stones in a lawn or a garden path, or create a pebble mosaic directly onto an existing concrete path.
Make a gabion wall
I love gabions for aesthetics, habitat or just because you have a lot of rocks or bricks to use up. You can also use all sorts of found objects to make them very unique and quirky and you can simply buy gabion cages or make your own from builders mesh.
Make a native bee bnb (or a hotel if you want to go up market).
Whatever you do, get outside and have some fun……..and take the kids with you. Not only will you have fun helping kids with these projects (or maybe it’s the other way round?), one of the best things you may ever grow may be a gardener.