For most kids, getting dirty is second nature. And while teaching them to garden may take a little work and a lot of patience, once you get them started, you'll find that gardening is not just an excellent opportunity to spend time outdoors as a family, it's also a great learning activity. Here are some ideas to keep little ones engaged until they can reap the rewards of their efforts. h3. Start Positively The best way to spark interest is to show children that you love to garden. If you've made good garden memories in the past with your kids, they should be anxious to join you in the fun. Younger children love to imitate adults, so you may want to get them their own set of tools like gloves, rakes, trowels and buckets. Since preparing the soil is an important first task, they'll be ready to help right from the start. h3. Think Responsibly One of the main goals for involving children in gardening is to teach them responsibility. Jut like pets, plants need constant attention and care, and children will learn the part they can play in helping them to grow. Remember that with younger children, however, the difference between a weed and a plant is often hard to see, so decide what age-appropriate help you can expect. Watering is enjoyable at any age. Younger children may benefit from a small watering can, while older children can learn to use a hose. You may want to decide beforehand if weeding and harvesting will be considered one of their chores. On one hand, you want this to be a pleasant experience, but at the same time, taking care of a garden is work and can help teach responsibility when it's a required job. Try not to set expectations that can't be met. Consider letting children help as much as they can, but don't criticize them when the work isn't done perfectly. h3. Design Away Let the kids help design a part of your garden that they can call their own. This could mean dividing the garden up among each child. Using a theme such as a vegetable soup or pizza garden is a great way to incorporate creativity into the project. To keep them interested, plan a pizza party or soup cook-off for when the veggies are ripe. They can also make markers to keep track of different plants. Just save Popsicle sticks and decorate them with earth-friendly supplies from a craft store or empty seed packets. They could even make a sign proclaiming their territory, like "Mary's Marigolds" or "Tom's Tomatoes." h3. Watch the Plants Grow Choose as many different easy-to-grow plants as you can get into your space. Carrots, radishes, and tomatoes are good vegetable choices. Starting from seed is a good learning experience. Small children will find large seeds such as corn, beans, and sunflowers easy to handle and plant. Bedding plants, too, are an excellent choice for getting started. Then start a journal to track the growth of different plants. For an art project, have the children make a drawing of the plant every week and add it to the journal. For older children, this is a wonderful time to set a goal to enter their vegetables and bouquets in contests at the local fair or town events or to join a group such as a community garden or 4-H club. h3. Let Books Inspire You Consider incorporating reading into gardening with books like The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle, Flower Garden by Eve Bunting or The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss. Also, Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert can be used for inspiration when creating a vegetable soup garden. h3. Take a Fieldtrip Teach kids about agriculture with a trip to a farm or a botanical garden. Not only is this another great way to spend time together as a family, it will also create many positive gardening memories. Check out your local university extension office for any charts or information you can use and then visit a nursery or greenhouse to put into action what you've learned. h3. Attend Nature's School Have a lesson on the importance of beneficial insects that help pollinate and protect the plants. Look for worms and other interesting life you might encounter. Or have a math lesson as you map out your design, pay for plants, and figure out the potential harvest. Discuss the relationship humans have with the earth and the importance of eco-friendly improvements like creating a compost system to feed plants, or determining the most efficient watering system. h2. Lighten Up When gardening with children, you have to relax your standards. Crooked rows and a few weeds are just fine. And when your child pulls up a handful of baby carrots and radishes, don't despair. Explain that this is merely a sign of things to come. After all, "doing" is more important than the end result. Remember, your goal is to end up with a future gardener, not a picture-perfect garden. **************** h2. Playing it Safe * If you use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, keep them away from children at all times. The best option is not to use any and find natural methods instead. * Have your soil tested for lead, which can be present when paint leaches into the soil from older homes. This can be a problem if you live around industrial areas as well. * Use caution with water. Even a bucketful can be hazardous around small children. * Beware of animals. Keep yards fenced and compost bins covered, and teach children not to touch any wild animal. * If your child develops a rash or other allergic symptom, seek medical attention.