The toddler sat on the floor with a large onion. She hefted it, feeling its weight, then hugged it to herself before setting it down and rolling it back and forth on the wooden floor. We had time traveled, or so it seemed, to witness this one-year-old playing happily without toys at a historical village in New Brunswick.
I often think of this little child exploring the weight, the roundness, the smell of the onion that would one day disappear into a stew. And, when I think of play spaces in a garden, it occurs to me that a very young toddler can be quite happy in a garden path near his caretaker who might hand him a pumpkin or a marigold blossom or a basket of green beans.
Babies and toddlers are scientists who constantly explore texture, color, weight, movement and balance. I once watched a two year old systematically place a series of objects on a narrow, wooden armrest, watching with interest as the objects balanced or fell to the floor. At this age children need freedom of motion and simple objects to manipulate so that they can discover how their own body works and so they can test the basic rules of physics and gravity that apply to common objects. Fortunate is the toddler who spends little time restrained in a car seat or a stroller, who is not distracted from his real work by screens or by toys that make noise, light or motion apart from his own intervention. A garden is the perfect place for a toddler to carry out physics experiments — a realm of soil and water, a veritable laboratory for pouring, sloshing, squishing and splashing. A spirit of simplicity can guide decisions about making play spaces within a garden. A very young toddler may prefer to play at your feet, or may explore nearby with no need for a special area. But, a two or three year old begins to appreciate a space of his own. We created a sandbox in our strawberry patch using plastic window box inserts for the edges. This is an easy project and your toddler can help with every step. If your budget is bigger than ours, you might buy cedar window boxes instead of the plastic inserts. Here is how we did it:
Step One: Identify the sandbox area and remove soil to the level of the garden pathways. We chose an area that had more shade than the rest of the garden, so it was not ideal for growing berries, but was perfect for a play area.
Step Two: Surround this area with window boxes or window box inserts placing them end to end with no gaps except a space for an entry way
Step Three: Fill the window boxes (or plastic inserts) with soil and make a mound of soil around the outer perimeter of the boxes. The mound can be from one to three feet wide and should be as high as the window boxes or plastic inserts. This mound helps to hold the window boxes in place and provides a planting area.
Step Four: Fill the sandbox area with sand not quite as high as the boxes.
Step Five Help your child plant edible flowers in the boxes. Nasturtiums and pansies are good choices. Plant veggies, flowers or fruit plants on the mound.
Step Six: Add stones, seashells and other treasures that your child collects on adventures to the forest or the beach. A watering can, a trowel or shovel, a small rake, harvesting basket, a sand bucket and a large water bucket are tools your child might enjoy in her work as a farmer or physicist. Don’t hurry to load the sandbox with all of this at once. You don’t necessarily have to buy anything. Consider old kitchen spoons and discarded pots or pans.
Step Seven: Join your toddler in the sandbox occasionally to water flowers, harvest berries or rake fallen leaves off the sand. Toddlers are natural imitators who do as you do more than they do as you say. They are likely to follow your lead if you model good work and don’t ask for participation.
If you are creating a new landscape, try to locate the garden and the sandbox near a door or along a pathway that you use often. Permaculture designers encourage us to locate herbs, salad crops and soft fruits such as strawberries near the door so they will be noticed and harvested in your travels. I would add that this is also the place for the sandbox. The toddler on his way through the door, going in or out, who spots her favorite shovel, will go right to work. This is your cue to grab the harvesting baskets left near the door. You can probably pick greens and herbs for dinner and perhaps pull some weeds while your toddler harvests an understanding of soil permeability or gravity or notices that his nasturtiums are blooming.
For more about permaculture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture
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