By Judy Stout, Ph.D./contributing writer

Q: With school out for summer, I not only have my children at home but also many neighborhood children. How can I involve them in gardening and get them outside, away from the digital screen?

A: Good question! We received a similar inquiry from a grandmother looking for outdoor activities for her grandchildren. Gardening with children is a great intergenerational activity that can occur at any time and is as flexible as the imagination of the children and adults involved.

What a wonderful way to make memories! More than a seed is planted in a garden. Subtly, children are offered the opportunity to observe, wonder, question and predict. They learn the importance of taking responsibility for caring for something dependent upon them. Skills such as scooping, digging, pouring, measuring and counting are acquired unconsciously. Planting edibles teaches where food comes from and the work required in producing and harvesting food. Your li’l sprout may begin to experiment, and even like, foods never tried before.

A 2011 report identified the top five things children like to play with. Included were sticks, string and dirt, with water following closely. All are naturals for gardening experiences. With this endorsement, we can all accept that it is OK to get dirty and wet! Some suggestions:

• You don’t need a large yard to garden. Use readily available containers like single-serving cereal or snack cups, yogurt containers, egg cartons or plastic clamshells from produce. Just make sure to put drainage holes in the bottoms and something underneath to catch water. You can garden on the window sill, growing avocado pits, garlic cloves, pineapple tops and celery bases. Or buy a small bag of potting soil, punch holes in the bottom then turn it over and slice planting holes in the top.

• Involve the child in planning the garden, selecting plants, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, cleaning food items, and even preparing food or arranging flowers — showing, instead of telling, how to do things. Let older children experiment with how, where and when to carry out gardening activities — e.g., How deep? When to water? How close together? Is it ripe? It’s okay to fail and then figure out why. Don’t make and enforce rules or do the work for the child.

• Start small and age-appropriate: a corner of a flower bed, a large pot or a designated child’s garden plot. Select sturdy tools with wooden handles and metal working ends (not toys that break easily), the right size for the child. How much fun can buckets, watering cans and a child-sized wheelbarrow be?!

• In plant selection, consider your child’s dexterity and fine motor skills: beans, sunflowers, cucumbers or marigolds for the youngest, and smaller seeds such as radishes or lettuce for older children. Transplanting purchased plants into your garden may be best for very young gardeners. Iris, caladium and daffodil bulbs are also easily handled, and offer great surprises when their leaves emerge.

• Plant some fun and surprise varieties such as peppermint, peanuts, snapdragons, lambs ear, pansy faces, mini-pumpkins, sugar cane or yard long beans (a wonderful opportunity to use those sticks and string!). Grow your own new plants by rooting cuttings, especially easy with square-stemmed plants such as coleus, mints or basil. Try short cuttings from your Christmas cactus.

• Do not use pesticides!

• Add features that attract animals to your garden: bird houses, shallow dishes of water, homemade bird feeders. Include wind chimes (make your own), a place to sit and observe or read, or child-crafted stepping stones. Use white plastic knives and an indelible marker to label your crops for future observation and harvest.

• Water the garden and your children. After all, it gets hot in summer Mobile. Make mud. Provide pots, pans and spoons to improvise an outdoor kitchen for preparing and “cooking” mud food.

• Welcome creativity and imagination. You may be surprised how much fun gardening with children can be!

You are invited to these upcoming gardening events

What: Kids Gulf Discovery Day
When: Wednesday, June 14, 9 a.m. to noon
Where: Bellingrath Gardens & Home, 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Admission: Fees apply; call 251-973-2217 for more information.

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch and Learn
When: Monday, June 19, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Tomato Taste-Off, Ellen Huckabay

What: 2017 Mobile County Master Gardener Class
When: Wednesdays, Aug. 9 through Nov. 15, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Cost: $160 for materials and educational field trip (limited number of scholarships available)
Application deadline: June 17
For more information: Call 251-574-8445 or email [email protected]
Print application at mg.aces.edu/mobile.

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to [email protected].