Safely Gardening With Children

By Jean Findlay, EMGV

It is so rewarding to see children get excited about gardening. They get outdoors with fresh air and exercise, away from screens, learn about plants and soil, and maybe improve their diet when they can eat and prepare what they have grown. And gardening can be done anywhere, and from a young age. This little one started to help garden at age two on a rooftop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!

While you are planning quiet summer afternoons in the back yard, your children may be plotting some mischief! A little preparation will help prevent a trip to the emergency room on an otherwise peaceful afternoon. So here are a few suggestions to keep everyone safe and happy.

Do a tour of your back yard to check for hidden dangers. Check for poisonous plants and remove them if possible. A plant ID app can identify the name, and the printable publications below (references 5 and 6) list plants poisonous to humans and animals respectively.

Have a first aid kit handy, as well as the phone number for poison control:


Make sure chemicals and petroleum products are safely stored. Pesticides and other chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, so they should never be handled by children. Ingestion of petroleum products can cause severe pneumonia. Make sure you watch chemicals while you are using them, until safely stored again.

Keep young children off a newly treated lawn for 48 hours.

If there are water features, rain barrels, paddling pools or drainage ditches, be sure there will be adequate supervision of toddlers. Toddlers have been known to do headstands in the toilet bowl, and if exploring a water feature combines with a fall, the result can be disastrous. Keep hoses coiled to prevent tripping.

Time for the pre-gardening lecture!

Before heading out to the garden to plant those prized heirlooms you’ve grown from seed, go over the rules. Garden tools are not toys or weapons, boys and girls! They should always be put on the ground with sharp points down. If tools are not scaled to size, make sure each little gardener is aware that there is a long handle behind them that can hit another child if too close.

They should wear sturdy shoes, and when appropriate, hat, sunscreen, eye protection, and insect repellant. Have plenty of water available to drink in hot weather.

Instruct them to only eat fruit or vegetables under adult supervision. Not all blue berries are blueberries; Poke berries for instance, are very toxic to young children. And Swiss chard looks quite like rhubarb whose leaves contain too high levels of oxalic acid for children to tolerate. For the vegetables and fruits you do harvest together, it is a great time to maybe let them taste some new and healthy food, and learn how to cook them with you.

Plants, pests, and power tools:

Some general recommendations from AAP and CDC:

  • Sunscreen: SPF 15 or more, apply 30 minutes before exposure and every 2 hours of exposure, and after swimming.
  • Insect repellent: 2 months and older : 10% DEET for up to 2 Hours exposure, 30% for up to 5 hours. Wash it off when return indoors.
  • Light colored clothing, avoid perfumed products, and cover up as much as practical.
  • Check for ticks each day. If found, remove carefully and record the date.
  • Combination sunscreen-DEET products risk extra exposure to DEET since it should be applied more frequently.
  • Power tools: only over 14 years of age, and if able to handle the equipment.
  • Mowers: This is my pet peeve! No matter how cute they look, NEVER let a child ride on a tractor or ride-on mower. They can fall off, sustain a head injury, be run over, or lose part of an arm or leg. It happens more often than people realize.
  • Age 14 + to operate a walk-behind mower, and 16+ for ride on mower.
  • Be sure to turn off the mower before removing grass from the blades (yes, I know someone who didn’t and got more than his nails trimmed)

Additional Information and References:

  1. Gardening Safety for Kids, Part 1: Getting Ready for the Garden (MSU Extension)
  2. Gardening Safety for Kids, Part 2: Using Tools and Preventing Injury (MSU Extension)
  3. Water Safety and Young Children (American Academy of Pediatrics)
  4. Choosing an Insect Repellant for Your Child (American Academy of Pediatrics)
  5. Poisonous Plant Resources (NC State Extension)
  6. Plants Poisonous to Livestock and Pets in North Carolina (NC State Extension)
  7. Guide to Accidental Plant Poisoning (Carolinas Poison Center)
  8. Sun Safety (CDC)