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A Garden Center Field Trip

How a trip to the garden center can make a surprising learning activity for kids

Helping an errand blossom into an adventure (so natural at the garden center in spring) just takes a little advance prep. Here are suggestions for enlivening the visit, broken down by age.

All ages

First off, try calling ahead. Ask where the things you need are located and see if there's a kid-favored area (a koi pond, a topiary display). Exploring that spot together can be the carrot you dangle while shopping for items on your list.

Another enticement is to promise to let your kids plant something at home (sunflowers and Easter egg radishes are fun and easy to grow from seed). In my case, I took one look at my son and that grapevine and knew it was destiny. Their love affair continues. Niles (or "The Vintner," as my husband now calls him) talks and dreams about the grapes it will grow. He wants me to have the first one.

Toddlers

Keep novice walkers from straying by announcing that you're going on a sniff-and-touch safari. Try the azalea: smelled okay to me, but my kids winced, fanned their faces, and enthusiastically pretended to faint. Say you're hunting a plant that feels like a lamb's ear (it's actually called lamb's ear). Visit the cacti, gingerly tap a large needle, and talk about how the plant protects itself. One inspired grandmother I know, realizing how much a toddler yearns to touch, steers her grandson to the sturdy decoratives like birdbaths and iron frogs. Garden gnomes are great sports about being poked up the nostril while hearing all about those nasty azaleas.

Preschoolers

At this age, kids' empathy for small things looms large, so let them follow their instinct to rescue and tend. ("Look how little the plants are," says Phoebe wistfully. "They need someone to take care of them.") Laura MacKeil, a mom and former general manager of a garden center, recommends giving preschoolers a treasure list of plants to locate. That can mean a verbal "find a pink flower" or matching the photos from a garden circular or catalog. Let your kids identify and cherish any stray blossoms they see on the pathways. Take a journal or hardback book to use as a flower press. Or take a cue from California gardener Adeline Mascareno, who designates her younger son "the official caretaker of each new 'little brother' or 'little sister' we place in the cart. I allow him to hold and baby the plants." For kids, that's a role to relish. For parents, it's a memory to hold dear.

Kindergarteners and up

Need someone to locate the tags on plants and read the numbers in the price? Big kids proudly serve. They're also great fans of funny plant names: sticky monkey flower, bat face, kiss me over the garden gate. On the ride home, try making up a story using the names ("One day, a sticky monkey flower made a mean bat face and...").

A visit to the seed packet racks lets you explain the difference between annuals and perennials. These packets also give the plants' eventual height, so take along a measuring tape, or borrow one from a salesperson. Measure your children in plant heights. Or try it vice versa: Two red bunny tails equals one Phoebe equals lots of giggles.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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