By Diane Rixon
Summer vacation keeps rolling along. How long until your kids go back to school? Are they spending too much time lounging on the couch? Here are a bunch of summer projects to trick your kids away from their air-conditioned sanctuary and out into the great outdoors of, er, your backyard.
Okay, okay. So the backyard is not the great outdoors. True. But the main thing is to get the kiddos out in the fresh air, learning about nature, and learning about the noble pursuit of maintaining a garden.
Getting their hands dirty
1. Ask them to help with the weeding. Pay them a small amount of pocket money for their time.
2. Re-seeding a patch of lawn? Let the kids participate in the prep and watering phases. Show them how exciting it is when the seedlings suddenly spring forth!
3. Hold a short session on lawnmower operation and safety. Give them graduation "certificates" when it's over.
4. Let them apply fertilizer via the hose sprayer, with your supervision. Blue water!
5. Encourage them to help you with pruning. (Older kids, obviously!)
6. Ask them to help you pile fresh mulch around your garden beds. This is a nice, easy project that little ones might enjoy. Okay, at least it'll keep them occupied while you get the bulk of the job done.
7. Have them collect the coffee grounds each morning and, once a week help them spread it around the garden. Let them know why it's good for the soil.
8. Let them help with edging the garden beds, using a shovel, spade, or manual edging tool. Kids love to practice cutting straight lines.
Flowers, pretty flowers!
9. Help them to pick out and plant bright-flowering annuals like impatiens and marigolds.
10. Get (or make) a flower press. Have them add new flowers to it regularly. Their favorites can be glued into a picture frame at the end of the summer.
11. Show them how seeds can be harvested when the flowers die. Encourage them to collect and dry seeds for next year.
12. Start Sunflowers. Kids love to grow these elegant beauties!
13. Have them keep a flower journal, describing what was blooming in each week and month. Have them draw each flower, too. If you suspect they won't keep at it that long, just aim for a one-day snapshot of the garden.
Other plants kids love to grow
14. Get them a pack of gourd seeds and see who can raise them to full size. (Tip: choose a sunny spot and prepare the soil well.)
15. Show them how vines get established. Give them a couple 12-inch English Ivy cuttings to root in water and, later, to plant in a shady spot. Measure how long they've grown by the end of the year.
16. Grow fun summer bulbs like caladium or gigantic elephant's ear.
17. Let them try growing a small Venus Flytrap or other carnivorous plant.
Veggie gardening 101
18. Have the kids start a vegetable garden of their own, or have them help you with your own plot.
19. Ask them to add the daily scraps to your compost bin. Have them add some brown matter like dried leaves for balance now and then, and stir the mixture each week or two. No need to lecture them about how it all works. They'll learn simply by doing.
20. Have them help you build a compost bin. There are tons of free building instructions online and in gardening books. Check out Francesca's post on the subject here.
21. How about a composting competition? Have each child start their own small pile of compost and see who can get the best compost and the most creepy crawlies in it at summer's end. If they don't follow through, no biggie. They're still learning.
22. Have them take turns watering the garden by hand or setting up the sprinkler. Playing in the water spray is allowed.
23. Kids can help stake up tomatoes, beans, and other climbing vegetables. Let them use brightly colored landscaping twine, wool, or ribbon if they want to.
24. Help them start an herb garden. Good plants for beginners are sweet basil and rosemary. (See my recent post on harvesting basil here.)
25. Let them dry their own herbs. Have them pick rosemary, tie it in bundles, and hang somewhere to dry.
26. Have them start seeds indoors in trays, then transplant the seedings outside.
27. Let them pick out their own seeds at the store. Encourage them to try wildflowers.
28. Let them thin out rows of baby vegetable seedlings such as radishes. There's something abut this simple task that kids just love.
29. Give them marker pens and plastic plant markers and let them label everything you're growing.
30. Make a scarecrow. It will do double-duty as front porch decoration when Fall rolls around.
Easy landscaping projects
31. Let them decide where to lay stepping-stones in the garden for informal paths through the flower beds.
32. Build an outdoor game using paving stones. A great example: hopscotch stepping stones
33. Build a sand pit. Kids can help clear a spot, dig a hole, and empty the sand in. (Bags of sand can be purchased in the cement section of hardware stores.)
34. Create a "secret garden." Let them "have" a secluded spot amongst the trees. If they want to, let them "wall it off" using cardboard or a piece of lattice or some landscaping fabric.
35. Make a rock sculpture. A great example that's easy enough for kids to manage is the Inukchuk, an artful pile of flat rocks arranged to resemble a human... in an abstract way.
36. Build a playhouse or tool shed. This can be the real deal, with them helping out, or it can be just pretend, using cardboard boxes, etc.
37. Build a butterfly garden (Heather has explained butterfly gardening basics, while I have shared my twenty butterfly gardening tips here.)
38. Let your kids get some pet caterpillars and raise them into butterflies. Cap it off with a Release Day "ceremony" in the yard.
39. Have them make a butterfly pond. Find a large saucer or plant tray and fill it with stones or coarse sand, then add a little water. Make sure they refresh the water every other day to get rid of mosquito larvae.
40. Let your kids release live ladybugs into the garden. You can get 'em online.
41. How about worms? Order live garden worms online and let the kids release them into the veggie garden.
42. Pretend you're in the jungle and hold a "bug-hunting" expedition. Don't catch what you find; just help the kids identify their critters, then let them go.
43. Hold a spider (or snake) identification competition. Hide photocopied pictures of different spiders around the garden and have your kids hunt for them. This will help them learn the names of spiders found in their regions and, hopefully, learn which might or might not be poisonous. Always a good thing to know.
44. Count fireflies at twilight. Let your kids know that fireflies are actually a type of beetle, and that they are declining in numbers, so we mustn't pester them or try and catch them in case they get hurt or fly away.
45. Create a dust bath area for birds. Mark a small, sunny spot where the grass isn't growing so well anyway. Remove what grass is there, rake up the top layer of dirt, and encircle the area with small rocks. Add some fine sand if you like.
46. Scatter seeds each morning. Just a small handful will do to encourage more ground-feeding birds such as mourning doves.
47. Keep a bird identification journal. Kids can use a small pocket guide like those produced by the Audubon Society to learn their backyard birds.
48. Build a seed feeder. Lots of free ideas/patterns can be found on the Web.
49. Build a seed/fruit-holding platform.
50. Build a wall-mounted or hanging suet/fruit holder for woodpeckers. (These are surprisingly simple to make.)
51. Build a bird nesting box. None of these woodworking projects needs to result in perfection. The birds don't check for symmetry, so relax and have fun. The idea is just to let kids have fun playing with wood and tools, and learn something about backyard birds.
52. Encourage hummingbirds with a hummingbird feeder. Encourage the kids to take turns washing and refilling it with homemade nectar.
53. Set up a mister to encourage birds. Have the kids work out how to program a timer so that it runs early in the morning when birds are most likely to bathe.
Other critter appreciation projects
54. For the squirrels: make a corncob holder from bent wire. (A project for older kids, obviously.)
55. Construct a brush pile from old branches. An easy-to-make wildlife haven.
56. Or collect pine cones and use them to construct a "pine cone pyramid" -- another easy haven for tiny critters like insects and reptiles.
57. Build a "tee-pee" from branches. Let the kids use larger branches as the base, then fill in the gaps with bunches of grass, dead leaves, etc. When they're done playing in it, let it, too, become a sheltering spot for animals.
58. Build a bat house. Inform your kids that bats are good because they eat tons of mosquitoes!
59. Build a toad house. (Click here to view my post on toad houses.) Make sure your kids know that frogs and toads have a tough time finding hidey-holes in cities and towns, so anything we can do to help is important.
60. Live in an area with lizards? Have your kids check every day around noon for lizards basking in sunny spots. Keep a tally of how many they see each day or week.
Fun with containers
61. Create a container garden. Terracotta pots are cheap. Let each child pick out one or two pots and choose inexpensive annuals to go in them.
62. Decorate the pots for added entertainment. Paint them with bright colors or glue on colored stones.
63. Make a whimsical planter using an old boot or sneaker. (Francesca will show you how kids can make a very cool color splash boot.)
64. Make a wind chime using anything you like! Ideas include pieces of bamboo, bottle caps, pieces of lightweight steel or PVC pipe, colored bottles, etc. String it all together with wool, twine, or invisible fishing line. (See Francesca's example here.)
65. Make a "sun face" outdoors wall hanging. Use a terracotta or plastic plant saucer for the "sun" and add facial features and expression using paints, seashells, sticks, bottle caps, etc.
66. Decorate rocks. Even young children enjoy painting stones in bright hues. When they're completely dry, arrange them in your garden beds for a little unexpected color.
Trees, wonderful trees!
67. Designate a sturdy tree as "the climbing tree." Let them satisfy that age-old urge that kids have for the adventure that is tree climbing. Bonus: if one tree is the designated climbing tree, they'll be less likely to damage your other trees or shrubs. You hope.
68. Build a tree house. This is one project that must have adult supervision.
Create some memories
69. Keep a photo or home movie journal of your summer garden activities together. Get the best snapshots made into a photo book for posterity.
70. Hold a photo shoot of your kids posing, playing, or working on their garden projects. Let them dress up or dress down. Try to capture the feel and smell of your garden in summer for them to enjoy as adults.
71. Hold a dig-a-hole competition. Each child gets a shovel and a spot in an unused portion of the garden. There's a prize for whoever can dig the deepest hole "to the South Pole" or whatever sparks their interest. Let them have at it!
72. Find a four-leaf-clover. This kept me entertained for many an hour as a child, and it should encourage your kids to stay outdoors, too. Tell them whoever can find a true four-leaf-clover earns good luck for the whole year.
For added inspiration
73. Let the Web inspire them. Copper Tree.com is a good starting point. I also like My First Garden, from the University of Illinois Extension. Or, wow, check out Garden for Kids, Master Garden Products' massive jumping off point for Web-surfing kids.
74. Consider investing in a couple kid-sized gardening tools. You can get real ones at hardware stores, or low-priced plastic ones for play purposes at stores like Target.
75. Have an overnight (or evening) camp-out in the yard. Watch the stars together.
Whatever you do, don't force the subject of gardening or the outdoors on your kids. Keep your ideas low-key and light-hearted. Enjoy your summer!