For some of the older allotment-holders children only spell trouble, but if you start children off early enough, everyone can enjoy the experience. We took on an allotment when our children were two and six. In the first few months I hardly visited the allotment alone and have our visits were inspired by the 6 year old. We treated it as a little farm- no flowers, nothing just for show- because it worked for us, but for different children you may need to be less-purist about the edible ethnic.
It helped to be within a short walking distance from the plot. Children may offer to carry tools, but by the end of the trip you will be carrying everything. An on-site shed or lock-up box would save your arms. A neighbouring plot-holder may be willing to share. Pick a large plot. If you have a young child, try to have a vacant plot next to yours.
Joint planning is preferable, though you may end up having to choose varieties according to their names and not their qualities. Some seed companies offer selections for children which may help. Having a separate area for each child helps give them a greater sense of success and independence, but if thats the only area they feel part of, they wont have much to do. Whatever scheme you decide upon, having clear paths through your site is useful. And make it very clear to the children that they cant go on other plots.
No special equipment is needed, though the children might appreciate gloves, and might be a good idea to have one of each tool for each child to stop them squabbling. The tools I use are always the most popular. Car boot sales are a good place to buy cheap tools from.
Safety is an issue, but little more so for adults. Be careful with sticks and make sure everyone is up-to-date with tetanus jab. The end of stakes can be made safe with a rasp, and canes are eye-friendly when toped with an old tennis ball. Collect and dispose of sharp glad and metal debris as it surfaces. Keep on-site some lavender essential oil for cuts, band aids and antihistamine tablets for insect bites. Any chemicals including fertiliser but especially herbicides and pesticides must be secure from thirsty and hungry raiders. Ensure ponds and water barrels are covered. Water on neighbouring plots is equally in need of protection from young swimmers. Take care of all the obvious dangers from the start so your allotment can remain a place of fun and relaxation.
What to do there
Find out what tasks they like doing. Dont raise your hope- even if they enjoy digging, theyll probably only enjoy digging holes. You could try buying a few surprises beforehand and turn digging into a treasure hunt. If youre lucky they may do the watering. They may prefer to work alone, as far from you as possible. Letting them weed unsupervised is not a good idea though. You could try a PYO system with them getting rewarded for each bucket of weeds they collect but make sure they know what weeds are first.
Accept loses! You wont have time for intensive farming so parts of the allotment will become over-run. Be realistic when you find theres no time to cultivate the whole plot. Cover some of the unused patch with carpet to transform a weed haven into a mud-free play haven- after two years even the toughest weeds should be worm food. Avoid rubber-backed carpets which break down into the soil. Some of your spare land can also be lucky dip land where a mix of left-over seeds will provide discoveries and delight. Do less weeding in this area and allow some of the crop plants to go to seed. Radishes for example make a wonderful display of (edible) flowers before setting (edible) seed pods which survive well enough for the next season. Some spare corners can be left almost completely untended as wildlife reserves. A small pile of logs and leaves may attract many different visitors, including your kids.
Let them get dirty- its all part of the fun. Even if there not doing anything useful, as long as they are not doing damage and not taking too much of your time, visits can be considered a success, so praise their hard work even if its not very productive. Our 2 year old once spent ages filling a little hole with water and finding stones to drop in. He was having a ball and we let him get on with it.
You may find that they get all the more enjoyable tasks- youll have to do the more boring things like prepare the ground. Though theyll want to plant seeds, it can be a fiddly job especially of the seeds are small and light- mixing seeds with sand before sowing them helps to thin them out. You need to balance when they like doing with what theyre good at, because its important that children succeed. You might like to do some secret weeding so that the crops were all their own work. Try to always have some fast growing crops- radish for example- and some things that can be eaten straight away. Things that grow fast and are big (sunflowers, gourds) are popular. Planting seedlings rather than seeds reduces the waiting time. A herb garden works for some children. You could even plot out a world map and grow appropriate plants in each country.
Maintaining the interest
Make the visits short, and be prepared to keep switching tasks. Have a family picnic if you want to stay for more than an hour, or have a break from gardening. There are many non-growing activities that you can try. Younger children might like making a mud track for toy cars. Older ones might like to make a pond or a nature area.
An allotment offers the chance for big construction projects. You can get materials from skips. We built a compost bin and even tried building an aqueduct out of old guttering. Fencing and netting offer other opportunities. But remember something to ostentatious might attract attention of vandals. And as everyone knows allotment work provides the opportunities for chatting while you work. Make the most of it while you can.
What you get out of it
The main benefit is that youre with the children while doing something useful, but with luck some crops may survive.
Children are more likely to eat vegetables if they have grown them. They may even help with the cooking. They might also enjoy giving their produce away to friend and neighbours.