Enter a garden with kids: little fingers dig and pick. Potatoes have eyes. Worms are pets. Snacks are self-serve. Plants are pulled, moved, swapped. Soil is heaved and hoed. Seeds are tucked in. Big questions are asked and simple answers are grasped like: What happens when we die? How are seeds made? Where does rain come from?

A garden is an intriguing place where a child can mingle and connect firsthand with the ways in which the natural world unfolds. Children learn about soil nutrients, plant identification, life cycles, and healthy food. Perhaps less obvious but just as important, is a garden’s sense of beauty, relaxation and play, which allows a child to soften and connect mind with body with nature.

Enter a garden with kids and it becomes an enchanting playground. Kids are naturally at home in the backyard; take their lead. Squeals of delight accompany the smallest things—a pumpkin seedling poking its head through the soil, a butterfly flying into a child’s net, a bucket filling up with rain.

The backyard offers parents a chance to be attentive and available for their child—sharing in the joys of mucky feet and a whistle made from a blade of grass. At the same time we can learn to be respectful of a child’s sense of independence, particularly when a youngster has her own plot in the garden. If you’re a parent, this is code language that translates to this joyous fact: a garden is a place where kids can play on their own while you get some of your own tasks accomplished.

Here are some activities that my kids and their friends have enjoyed in our backyard garden. If you don’t have a garden, a park will do. Or an overgrown alley, or a deck with some flower pots, or a neighbour’s yard. Just remember, kids usually come up with the best ideas on their own.

1. Order a batch of live ladybugs for kids to release. Visit web link.

2. Collect and paint special stones and pieces of wood to identify a patch of garden that belongs to a kid. Use an acrylic water-based paint. Optional: an adult can spray them with a sealant afterwards to make them waterproof.

3. Lie in a patch of grass and look for a four-leaf clover.

4. Make a teepee out of alder or willow poles and plant beans around it for kids to hide in.

5. Provide a plot of soil and a cup of seeds for kids to plant and look after themselves. As Ron Finley, a guerilla gardener in South Central L.A. says, “If kids grow kale, kids eat kale.”

6. Turn a tree stump into a fairy home by painting shells or rocks to decorate its entrance. Collect flower petals in a basket to lay out into a spiral or to make the fairy’s path.

7. Designate a “pottery garden” where kids can place pieces of colourful household dishes that have broken.

8. Send a kid off with a salad bowl to pick greens, herbs and flowers—point out edibles in the garden as soon as your child seems interested. (Be sure to mention that some plants are not to be eaten and that they must check with an adult first.)

9. Make flower or herb essences using a potato masher, sieve and mixing bowl—save old cosmetic or spice jars for the essence water. Or make fresh tea with herbs and throw a tea party.

10. Make a magic flower wand with a stick from the forest. Use ribbon to tie flowers onto the end of it.

11. On a rainy day, fill buckets with rainwater and play with old PVC pipes, funnels and straws.

12. Let a child make a temporary home for “pets” they find in the garden (salamanders, slugs, cabbage worms, butterflies, earthworms). Be sure to let the child know that they will have to release the pet within a specific amount of time back to its real home. If you collect cabbage worms, keep them in a container with a piece of kale and wait to release them when they turn into white butterflies.

13. Encourage a child to “feed” the compost by adding shredded paper, cardboard, eggshells, kitchen food scraps, kelp, and leaves.

14. Set up a weather station (a thermometer, bucket and wind sock will do). Conduct some weather experiments.

15. Make cards. Use a basket to collect leaves. Place the leaves on a piece of paper and use crayons to color over the tops of the leaves. Remove the leaves and admire the designs!

Sarah Platenius is a backyard gardener, artisan and a mother of two. Visit her website at web link.