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Room to Grow
Coax kids outside with gardening activities

There's something clearly amiss when a parent is puttering outside for hours in the glorious sunshine while the kids are loafing indoors. It can be hard enough to get a kid outside - imagine trying to coax your Wii-addicted tween to help out in the garden.

While different tactics work for different ages and personality types, gardening experts say the key is starting small.

You'd think Julie Stricker's daughter, Edie, 4 1/2, was born with a gardening gene, but really, Stricker simply has given Edie the freedom to gradually fall in love with the garden. And she has.

The little girl has followed her mother around the garden in Fairbanks, Alaska, since she was 18 months old. At that age, Edie dug small holes in the ground while Stricker worked nearby. This led to her own garden section, in which Stricker allowed the toddler to choose her own seeds and plants.

Last year, Edie grew a 10-foot-tall sunflower and a giant pumpkin in the family's 20-by-50-foot garden. (It's near the family's even larger, fenced pen that currently holds two dozen sled dogs.) She also planted all of the family's broccoli and most of the zucchini, her mother says.

Stricker's sunshiny view of gardening piqued Edie's initial interest - and it has lasted.

"(Edie is) as proud of that garden as if she'd planted and done all the work herself," Stricker says.

Allowing a child to make age-appropriate decisions and backing off adult-sized expectations is the first part of the puzzle.

The National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt., also suggests keeping it fun and sharing your enthusiasm. Among the tips at its online clearinghouse for teachers and parents:

n Start with easy-to-grow and interesting plants (annual flowers, sunflowers, beans, tomatoes and basil, to name a few);

- Set aside personal expectations about aesthetics and the end product;

- Allow kids in on the decision-making, even if it's only to choose a few, pretty seeds;

- Give children ownership of a small part of the garden, or their own garden or container.

Sunnie Valentine's children, Goldia, 11, and Fritz, 8, followed her into the garden and have been gardening since they were big enough to hold a bean seed. Today, the two work together to plan, plant and care for their own 3-by-20-foot garden, and they help out in their mom's even larger one in Overland Park, Kan.

"Children are nurturers. They want to help. They want to take care of things," Valentine says. "People have been taking care of them ... so why not start them with seeds or transplants?"

Valentine thinks it's easy to motivate children to garden.

"They can dig, play in the dirt, get their hands dirty," Valentine says. "What could be more fun than that?"

With younger kids, Valentine recommends allowing them to use their sandbox toys in the garden and forgetting about the final product.

"So many times parents are so worried about what their landscape is going to look like," she says. "You can blend things in. ... It doesn't take that much."

Kids can learn - and do - so much in the garden, Valentine says. They can watch for birds, bugs and other creatures. They can watch the plants grow and notice how some have long, trailing vines, such as pumpkins, while others, like tomatoes, are bushy. They can rake leaves for the compost bin.

Karen Alaniz of Los Alamos, N.M., hasn't had as much luck in the garden. Her 7-year-old daughter, Maricela, showed an interest in gardening a few years ago. Alaniz helped Maricela plant a garden when she was 4, only to allow it to die. They tried again the following year, and that died, too.

"I'm just useless (in the garden)," she says.

Alaniz blames her childhood growing up in downtown Manhattan for her brown thumb. She might one day try to grow a tomato plant because, she says, "tomatoes can grow through anything." In the meantime, Maricela has to settle for a mediocre substitute: She happily builds her gardens at Webkinz, an interactive Web site for kids.